ARGENTINA is now sliding into genuine hyperinflation. The stories from Buenos Aires are beginning to be very similar to those from Germany after World War I. There is the same air of haste bordering on panic in which people snatch up their wages and rush out to spend them on almost anything before prices rise again. By the time the German hyperinflation reached its climax in late 1923, factory workers were being paid twice a day and a newspaper cost 200 billion marks. The price level was something over a trillion times the 1914 level.
Things haven't reached that point yet in Argentina. At least theoretically there is still time for the Argentine government to bring its inflation under control. But the chances for success are fading, as the spiral accelerates. The inflation rate is now around 25 percent a month, which means nearly 1,500 percent a year.
The political reality behind this inflation is the vehement struggle between the government and the Peronist labor movement. When the government came to power less than a year ago, it unwisely promised labor to keep wages rising faster than prices. That initial error underlies its present inability to impose restraint. The unions called a one-day general strike on Monday to press their claims for still faster wage increases.
Here in the United States, attention continues to be fixed on Argentina's foreign debts. The question is whether the International Monetary Fund ought not to make special concessions to Argentina, to help a new and struggling democratic government in a bad time. The answer, unhappily, is that any concessions on debt repayment now would be wasted. The next installment on the debt is not the central threat to Argentina's economy. The central threat is a profound internal imbalance that has badly frightened Argentines and generated a massive and continuing flight of capital out of the country.
This flow of capital outward aggravates the debts and makes repayment more onerous than ever. Most of the foreign loans to Argentina over the past several years have done little but finance this capital flight. The economy is being progressively and rapidly stripped of capital, as Argentines work frantically to get their money to New York and London for safekeeping. It is economic development in reverse, and it is apparently uncontrollable as long as the inflation persists. Standards of living are declining. The unions strike in protest, demanding remedies that can only make the inflation spin faster.
There is much good will in this country toward the embattled Argentine government. But foreign support can't help much until the government itself acts to restore some degree of internal stability to the country.