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ECONOMY | 13-04-2022 21:07

Argentina’s inflation surged to 20-year high in March

Consumer prices in Argentina rose 6.7% in March, up 55.1% over past year; Rift between top two political leaders hampers inflation fight.

Argentina’s inflation rate galloped to its fastest pace in March since 2002, challenging a strategy by the government to cool prices that already lacked support from within the ruling coalition. 

Consumer prices rose 6.7 percent last month compared to February, the highest level since Argentina was in one of its worst economic crises 20 years ago. Inflation reached 55.1 percent from a year ago, the highest annual level of President Alberto Fernández’s presidency and most since June 2019. Both results were above all forecasts among economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

Prices for education, textiles, utilities and food all exceeded the headline figure in March. Core inflation accelerated to 6.4 percent too. 

Economy Minister Martín Guzmán had already warned on Monday that price increases for March would be above at least six percent, surpassing economists’ expectations at the time. 

Many economists are now forecasting that prices may rise more than 60 percent annually this year, which would be the highest level since the nation tamed hyperinflation in the early 1990s. Argentine officials were accused of publishing inaccurate inflation data from 2012 to 2015, prompting a new administration in 2016 to overhaul the methodology.

Meanwhile, a rift between Fernández and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is sowing public doubt over the government’s anti-inflation strategy under its US$44.5-billion accord with the International Monetary Fund. 

Argentina’s target estimate for inflation this year in the IMF deal – between 38 to 48 percent – could be changed when the government holds a formal review with the Fund’s staff in May, according to a person with direct knowledge of the inflation strategy, who asked not to be named because the information isn’t public yet. 

Government officials believe that meeting the targets in the IMF programme and implementing its policies will gradually help cool expectations on price increases, the person added. 

Policy makers have taken steps to curb price increases, such as raising interest rates, narrowing the fiscal deficit and reducing money printing to finance government spending. But many investors question whether Fernández’s government has enough support from within its own coalition to continue imposing tough economic measures as inflation heats up.

The split between Fernández and Fernández de Kirchner over the IMF deal is challenging Guzmán’s ability to implement the agreed policies. Although Argentina’s Congress largely approved the agreement in March, lawmakers loyal to the former president voted against it. 

 

Fractured coalition

The deal calls on the country to take a range of conventional steps to fight inflation, such as further narrowing the fiscal deficit. But some investors doubt that the fractured ruling coalition will let Guzmán fully implement the plan. 

Successful inflation strategies “need governments with a lot of credibility,” said Martín Rapetti, executive director of consulting firm Equilibra, who sees inflation ending this year at 65 percent. “This government has low credibility because the whole world knows there’s infighting.” 

Guzmán this week denied rumours that he’ll be forced to quit. But he hinted at the government’s internal divide, saying that Argentina can’t tackle inflation unless there’s widespread support for the government’s plans under the IMF agreement. 

 

Peso devaluation 

Some local economists argue that the IMF plan may even make inflation worse in the short term, since it’ll raise electricity bills by removing subsidies. It also involves devaluing the official peso exchange rate at a faster pace.   

The IMF sees Argentina’s faster inflation last month as largely tied to price shocks from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to people with direct knowledge. 

While all nations in Latin America are facing extra price rises from the European conflict, Argentina’s inflation was already above 50 percent when it started. Plus the government also raised fuel prices nearly 10 percent last month. 

And while that cocktail of factors is causing inflation to soar, Fernández’s difficulty in getting Fernández de Kirchner’s faction to support his policies is raising concerns that temporary price rises could become more lasting.  

“Everything that’s transitory in the world becomes permanent in Argentina,” said Guido Lorenzo, executive director of consulting firm LCG, who forecasts 65 percent inflation in Argentina this year.

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