Metaphors won’t pay your bills. Argentina is in
financial trouble and all that commentators
can come up with is one metaphor after
another in a bid to explain what’s going on.
Argentina is the Titanic, to some. To others,
Argentina is a cow with not enough milk to
feed its calves. Metaphors abound when solutions are scarce.
One individual uttering the flowery talk (author of the cow
metaphor) this week was Carlos Melconian,
an orthodox economist who left President
Mauricio Macri’s administration after quitting as head of the state-run Banco Nación
early in 2017. Melconian is groomed, trained
and experienced, but he oozes street credibility thanks to his working-class background.
The twist is that Melcionian has been for
years on good terms with Alberto Fernández,
the Peronist frontrunner in the presidential
election who defeated Macri convincingly in
the August 11 PASO primaries.
There’s a story going round. Melconian, until recently an
advisor with access to Macri’s inner circle and the president’s
centre-right coalition, is suddenly behaving in public like he
could get a top Cabinet job if a Peronist wins the presidency in
the first round on October 27. Reports that Fernández had
asked Melconian to produce a sweeping “economic plan” fuelled further speculation.
Forget all those metaphors. Here it is happening once more:
enter the next economist who will save the nation. Melconian,
who has been fiercely critical of Macri’s “gradualist” approach
and his decision to do away with capital controls overnight
after winning the presidency in 2015, made a series of television
appearances and, lo and behold, it sounded like he was not
entirely against the idea of becoming the economy minister of
an Alberto Fernández administration.
Not only was Melconian filling a vacuum with his learned
wisecracks, he was willingly playing the role of the ‘economistas-messiah,’ just when the nation’s anxiety about its economic
future is peaking. Pending, after all, is a US$5.4-billion tranche
of the International Monetary Fund’s loan. And there’s rife
speculation that the IMF will not down the money ahead of the
presidential election even though Hernán Lacunza, Macri’s
new economy minister, is set to shuttle off on a mission impossible to Washington in an effort to get the money.
There was a further twist too: could Melconian be trying to
convince the Frente de Todos frontrunner that what the country needs are orthodox economic policies, like fiscal discipline,
labour and pension reform? In other words: could Carlos get
Alberto to champion market-friendly recipes? Predictably Fernández is under increasing pressure from the establishment to
embrace economic orthodoxy.
Melconian, in the television interviews, ruled out nothing.
But the uproar surrounding his sudden high profile inevitably
prompted Alberto Fernández to deny that he
had commissioned an economic plan from
the man, while still underlining that the former Banco Nación head is an authority on
Metaphors can wait. Melconian can wait.
Meanwhile, Argentina’s plight rolls on. Even
Fox News is paying attention, reporting this
week that the country’s economy is “haemorrhaging” because a “socialist” candidate
(meaning Alberto and his vote-winning running-mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner)
could win the election next month.
Fox News blames socialism (just when it is an issue in US
domestic politics), but Alberto Fernández blames the president.
“Macri is the problem,” he keeps telling the press. Polls show
that the Peronist lead in the race is increasing. But then they
could be wrong, as we learned quite recently, and even if they
are right, Macri has little choice but to carry on regardless.
And what of the president himself. This week, he posted a timid
“Yes we can” tweet and the next
day revealed that what he has in
mind is staging 30 “marches” in
30 key locations nationwide,
ahead of the election. Macri is
relaunching his campaign, and
why not? Somewhere deep down
inside the president’s campaign
team still thinks that an electoral
upset is possible – the only problem is that reality seems to have
Otherwise, the week was dominated by rumours of fuel shortages. The president recently decreed a 90-day freeze on fuel prices as part of a package of measures designed to favour the middle
class after the huge defeat last
month. Yet the freeze is no more
(amid an international crisis for
the sector) – the government has
allowed a four-percent increase in
fuel prices in what looks like a
desperate bid to avoid shortages.
The backpedalling will hurt
Macri’s bid. The president was
trying to put out the fire by freezing
prices but, when what Macri faced
was being left with no petrol at all,
in the middle of an economic crisis, the government had no
margin to measure the electoral consequence of its decisions.
In some ways, Macri has lost so much that he seems to have
nothing left to lose. Prices are put in the freezer and then defrosted. The Central Bank’s monetary policy is getting laxer,
contrary to the IMF’s recipes, just when an important payment
is pending. This month’s inflation rate will be punishing. Poverty will increase. Unemployment is up.
The president is constantly exposed. Macri was publicly
chastised about poverty by a Catholic Church leader during a
religious ceremony in Salta. Peronist Senator Miguel Ángel
Pichetto, the president’s running-mate, came to his defence,
declaring that the local hierarchy is overacting to impress Pope
The president doesn’t need metaphors. He needs an electoral
miracle. But there is one bright spot ahead. The last chance of
a dramatic shift in the race could be the two looming presidential debates next month.