BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Trying to put the brakes on a financial crisis that has engulfed Argentina in recent weeks, President Mauricio Macri imposed new restrictions on access to foreign currency.
The restrictions, which took effect Monday, are the latest move by a leader who came into office promising to open up the economy but is instead putting in place the types of measures he has long criticized as he heads into October’s presidential election.
His move reflects just how much Argentina’s economy has gone into a tailspin in the weeks since a nationwide primary last month, in anticipation of the presidential election, yielded a surprising result: The main opposition candidate, Alberto Fernández, had a surprisingly strong showing over Macri.
Fernández is running on a ticket with the former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as his vice president. Investors fear that if he wins the October election, it would amount to a return to the interventionist economic policies that came to mark her back-to-back administrations from 2007 to 2015.
Imposing currency controls is a remarkable about-face for Macri, who was elected on the promise of liberalizing the economy, and celebrated when one of his first measures after taking office in December 2015 was to get rid of restrictions on the purchase of foreign currency and the free flow of capital.
But Macri’s push to open the economy was supposed to usher in a new wave of investment. That has not happened, and conditions have since spiraled.
So the new restrictions on capital “ended up being inevitable,” said Martín Kalos, chief economist of Elypsis, a local economic consultant organization. “Macri needed to take drastic and pragmatic measures for the crisis not to continue and worsen from here to December.”
“There are more people in the banks and that makes sense because in moments of crisis and uncertainty everyone is looking to protect themselves,” Kalos continued. “But there is no panic because the government has really made a point of guaranteeing that anyone who wants to withdraw their savings can do so.”
On Monday the new restrictions at least had some of the desired effect as the peso strengthened slightly.
Banco Galicia on Corrientes Avenue in Buenos Aires was fuller than normal Monday.
“I was surprised at how things were relatively calm,” said Walter Gastrell, a 78-year-old retiree, who went to the bank to see what the reaction would be to the currency restrictions. “With all the experience we’ve had with crises, this feels like history repeating itself.”
Gastrell said he was debating whether to take his own money out of the bank, fearing there may come a point when the government would limit withdrawals, as has happened before in Argentina.
The value of the peso has plunged around 25 percent since the primary amid a broad sell-off of Argentine assets and debt. Argentina’s Central Bank has also been hemorrhaging reserves as it has tried to shore up the peso.
Speaking in a television interview Sunday night, Hernán Lacunza, the economy minister, made clear the new measures were taken to prevent the crisis from worsening.
Amid the restrictions unveiled Sunday, Argentines are limited to buying no more than $10,000 a month in foreign currency while corporations require authorization to buy any foreign currency that is not for international trade.
Companies must also repatriate earnings from foreign sales within five business days.
The government “considered it necessary to adopt a series of extraordinary measures aimed at assuring the normal functioning of the economy, sustain the level of activity and employment and to protect consumers,” said the official announcement of the new controls.
“Capital controls are not ideal, but they are necessary if you want to put the brakes on the foreign exchange rate,” said Marina Dal Poggetto, executive director at EcoGo, an economic consultant group in Buenos Aires.
The key to know whether the measures are working will come in the next few days when data will show whether bank withdrawals that had been accelerating since the primary slow down, Dal Poggetto said.
Although Fernández has been highly critical of Macri’s running of the economy and the $57 billion line of credit he sealed last year with the International Monetary Fund, he has yet to detail what he would do to turn around the economy that has been mired in crisis since April 2018.
Many, however, are not optimistic that economic measures can solve what is essentially a political problem.
“You have a very weakened president and a candidate who is not the president yet,” Dal Poggetto said. “It’s difficult to build confidence.”
The new restrictions came mere days after Argentina said it would seek to defer payments on $101 billion of debt amid rising fears that the country may eventually end up defaulting on its debt. Argentina has defaulted on its sovereign debt eight times since it obtained independence from Spain in 1816.
These memories of default made Argentines worry about their deposits in recent weeks as friends exchanged text messages about the need to withdraw cash amid rumors of impending restrictions on withdrawals that have so far failed to materialize.
Sandra Menéndez, a 54-year-old accountant, said there were more people than normal at the branch of the Santander Río bank she had just visited but that it was nothing new.
“There were a lot of people last week as well,” she said, describing it as “the Argentine psychosis” to always seek refuge in the U.S. dollar at times of economic uncertainty.
Menéndez lost “the equivalent of a small apartment” in savings during the 2001 crisis, when Argentina defaulted on some $100 billion in debt amid a spectacular economic collapse. But for now, she continues to have faith in the financial system.
Some are bracing for more pain.
“The situation can definitely get worse,” said Valeria Armesto, a 40-year-old photographer who was leaving Banco Galicia with her two children, ages 6 and 8. “You never know with this government.”
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