Argentina's prices doubled last year, more than 20 banks collapsed and more failures are predicted. Businesses and industries are folding at a record rate and money is pouring out of the country at the rate of $50 million a day.
There is more grain and meat exports, the mainstay earners of foreign exchange, are down about 30 percent, and unemployment seems likely to rise seriously in the months to come.
Yet if the indicators seem ominous for this nation of 25 million people, thre are some experts who see rebirth in the same signals.
"Argentina is more like a man just rising from his death bed, not falling in," an American businessman here said. "He is still weak and could have a relapse, but he has a real chance to live."
This assessment makes some sense if the current situation is compared with the past, particularly with the period when the current military seized power, in March 1976.
Inflation reached 54 percent for that month alone. For all of 1976, the cost of living rose 900 percent. Industry was inefficient and imported goods were impossible to find because they were taxed at 100 percent and more.
"It was chaos," said economist Abraham Scheps. "There was no rational economic system."
The panic and anarchy that struck Argentina were produced during 30 years in which the country combined intense political nationalism with economic fascism.
This was begun by Juan Peron, an admirer of Benito Mussolini who took power in 1946 with a policy of pleasing everyone by subsidizing everything.
His hold on the people was so strong that even in the period 1955-1973, when he was in exile, the consequences of his economic policies were kept largely in place.
But the situation had become so catastrophic by 1976 that the new government and, it seems, most of the people were ready for a change.
"We had no option," a civilian economist in the current government said. "Money had no value. People stopped working because their salaries were worthless. What it had cost to buy a small apartment would now buy an ice cream cone."
The new military regime, headed by Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, moved with a vengeance to restore order. Unions and opposition were repressed.
The man charged with creating a new economic order was Jose Martinez de Hoz, a financier with strong international connections, particularly with the Rockefellers and other bankers. He set out to install a free-enterprise system by reducing the high tariffs and controlling the value of the peso against the dollar.
The results were immediately beneficial, at least in terms of inflation. But at that point the program stalled, mostly because the generals were not willing to apply a chock treatment that might have a negative political effect.
Duties on imported goods had been so high that even substantial cuts did not have the desired effect at the outset. American-made jeans cost at least twice as much in Buenos Aires as in a U.S. city.
Now import duties are down to an average of 55 percent on consumer goods and nothing at all on major industrial products such as plant equipment. The idea was that increased imports would force local businesses to lower prices and improve equipment to meet the competition.
There are signs that the strategy is working. In November, the wholesale price index rose just 2.5 percent and the cost of living went up 4.7 percent, a considerable improvement over the October figures.
But there are still serious problems, part of them stemming from the decision to keep the peso pegged at an artificially high rate.
An exporter of, say, textiles finds it increasingly difficult to sell in other countries where international purchases are paid for in dollars. The textile and fishing industries have all but lost their overseas markets.
The big exporting agricultural industries have also been hit hard, but the grain market is expected to hold on because of unusual factors.
By ignoring the American call for an international grain boycott of the Soviet Union, the Argentines have succeeded in selling huge supplies of wheat to the Soviets at a price about 30 percent higher than world prices. Thus, although exports are down nearly a third -- and now are suspended as a result of drought -- Argentine farmers may well stay about even in terms of income.
The goal of the government is to manage both the currency and tariff reductions to a point where the dollar and peso will be in balance and local industry producing efficiently.
But this is not expected to happen for at least a year, probably two. In the meantime, businesses are failing, particularly those in exporting areas, and some fear it will come too late.
They point out that the country has gone from a trade surplus of $1.7 billion last year to a deficit in 1980 of nearly $2 billion.
One of the major worries is that business failures will turn many thousands of workers out of their jobs. At the moment, the unemployment rate is about 2 percent, one of the lowest in the world, but many experts see this as an artificial figure that hides serious levels of underemployment. A dark sign of this has been a recent increase of "street peddlers." These were a rare sight in the past, as were beggars, who are also more noticeable.
The national budget deficit is more than 4 percent, or about $525 million. This a serious factor in inflation and to reduce it would require reductions in government staff and services and cutoff of subsidies for government-owned industries and utilities.
There is serious doubt that the generals, who are not particularly popular anyway, would be willing to set off the unrest that might accompany a serious cutback in jobs or the nationalist fervor that might come with selling off government firms.
Officials say they are working on it. They say they have eliminated more than 200,000 jobs from the public sector while selling off more than 400 government-owned businesses. But a diplomat said, "They still have twice as many government employes as they need."
Besides, he continued, "most of the firms they dumped were small and not a factor, really. Actually, they have sold off no more than 60 important businesses out of more than 750 run by the government."
Electric and other utility costs are among the costliest in the world and the quality of the service is among the worst. A typical electric bill for a month for a two-bedroom apartment is close to $200, and power failures are common. The telephone system is considered a joke.
This situation has not been brought about because Argentines are lazy but because for more than 30 years they were subsidized and protected.
"It was easier for a plant owner to ask the government to either prop him up or build a tariff wall against foreign competition than it was to invest in new plants or try modern marketing devices," a government official said.