BUENOS AIRES -- Roll over, Manhattan, and go tell Tokyo the news. Buenos Aires, just a year ago one of the cheapest of the world's major cities, has joined the ranks of the most expensive.
The austral, Argentina's once laughable currency, is now so strong against the dollar that Argentines joke they can't afford to vacation at the local beaches. Sigh. They'll have to settle for Miami. That's a far cry from last year when the government was introducing larger and larger cash denominations so fast it nearly ran out of Founding Fathers to adorn them.
An overvalued local currency, byproduct of President Carlos Menem's economic stabilization plan, has made even window shopping painful for anyone unlucky enough to be carrying dollars. Hand-tooled loafers that cost $40 a year ago now go for $100. A tub of ice cream costs more than $10. It costs nearly $10 to buy a cotton undershirt.
Not that things are much different in other major cities on a continent that used to offer tourists and expatriates first-world amenities at third-world prices.
Dinner for two at one of Lima's poshest restaurants can cost upwards of $100, not quite New York standards but at least double what the meal would have cost in January. Prices in Brazil's Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro likewise have suddenly gone through the roof, with housing, transportation and entertainment leading the way.
The basic reason for the abrupt change is that reform-minded governments, desperate to reduce four-digit inflation rates, have halted or at least markedly slowed the printing presses that used to spew out currency at a dizzying rate. With less local money to chase an expanding supply of dollars, the price of the dollar has gone down.
Here in Argentina, officials have begun to express concern that the dollar is too low. Tourism is believed likely to suffer heavily in the warm-weather peak season around Christmas. Agricultural producers complain their exports are becoming uncompetitive, and the central bank has started to buy dollars to keep the exchange rate from becoming even more skewed.
But aides to Menem have expressed satisfaction at the relative stability that has come to an economy sorely in need of it. "We must establish confidence in the currency," Planning Secretary Moises Ikonicoff said recently. "If you don't have a currency, you don't have a country."
Argentines gave Menem another expression of confidence last week when they largely shunned a protest rally called by the organized labor faction that opposes his program to sell off cash-draining public monopolies. Barely 30,000 showed up.
The government has sold the woefully inadequate telephone company Entel to consortiums of Spanish, Italian and French firms. Final details are being worked out for sale of 85 percent of the national airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, to Spain's Iberia. Buenos Aires Mayor Carlos Grosso, a Menem ally, is even privatizing the city zoo.
The privatizations, like most of Menem's measures, are aimed at slowing chronic inflation by removing loss leaders from the government's books, thus reducing the incentive to cover salaries and other costs by simply printing more money.
The downside of Menem's tight-money strategy is one of the deepest recessions Argentina has ever seen. The automobile industry, which produced nearly 300,000 vehicles in 1980, is expected to produce fewer than 90,000 this year. Consumption has plummeted, and unemployment is officially listed at about 9 percent, with unofficial estimates much higher. And prices are still rising. Inflation was 7.7 percent last month, meaning that buying power continues to slip.
But if life is expensive for the average Argentine, at least it is more predictable. The frenzy that came with bursts of hyperinflation last year and at the beginning of 1990 has gone. Shoppers no longer race clerks up and down the aisles, grabbing items before they can be marked with higher prices.
With chickens costing $4 each and tomatoes $1, those who earn their living in dollars -- long a kind of shadow currency here -- try to avoid grocery stores. But taking the kids to McDonald's is no way to get a break, however much deserved. A McD.L.T., large fries and a chocolate shake will set you back $9.
A year ago, the average dollar earner here was, well, a bit spoiled. A cab ride, for example, from the suburbs to the downtown financial center cost about $5. Now, with the fare for that same ride approaching $20, the cramped commuter train looks better and better.
The cost of living is the first, and sometimes only, topic of conversation when foreigners gather. But even worse off are Argentines who last year, seeing their austral-based salaries evaporate, negotiated payment in dollars. Once $1,000 a month was a quite comfortable wage here. Now it gets you by, but barely.
There are exceptions. Beef, that staple of the Argentine diet, is still affordable, except in its fast-food forms. The diligent shopper can still find bargains in leather goods. Fine Argentine wines, of which there are many, can still be bought for much less than a comparable Napa Valley.
But overall, pound for overpriced pound, Buenos Aires is a consumer's nightmare for anyone trying to do his consuming with dollars.