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Friday 9 December 2016

Greece crisis: Argentines advise Greeks to withdraw cash, but don't rush to exit

Published 01/07/2015 | 12:07

A pedestrians walks past a closed store in Buenos Aires. Argentina's government is ramping up state intervention in the economy to try to prevent a new debt default from triggering a balance of payments crisis but its policies are also battering business confidence and may deepen a recession
A pedestrians walks past a closed store in Buenos Aires. Argentina's government is ramping up state intervention in the economy to try to prevent a new debt default from triggering a balance of payments crisis but its policies are also battering business confidence and may deepen a recession

For shell-shocked Greeks struggling with temporarily shuttered banks, long lines at ATMs and limits on withdrawals, Argentines who survived similar financial chaos more than a decade ago have some guidance.

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"The advice I would give is to go get your money out of the bank," said Leo Suckewer, a Buenos Aires restaurant operator, recalling Argentina's "corralito", or freeze, on bank accounts in late 2001, aimed at halting a run on banks.

That move preceded the decision to abandon pegging the peso to the dollar as well as convert savers' dollar holdings into local currency. The radical policies plunged millions of Argentines into poverty as the economy contracted violently after three years of steady decline and triggered deadly rioting, the fall of the government and Argentina's record default on $100 billion of sovereign debt.

But within a year from a sharp devaluation in early 2002 the country returned to economic growth - something that Greece must now crave, with its economy shrinking by more than 25 percent since 2009.

There are striking similarities between the Argentine economic crisis of 2001-2002 and the turmoil in Greece: rigid monetary regimes, creditors battling against domestic politics to fix the problem and banking systems at breaking point.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out new negotiations with Greece until after it votes on a bailout proposal by creditors. That left Athens virtually no hope to avert a midnight default, and could set Greece on a path out of the euro.

Some economists argue that Greeks might be better off going back to its old drachma currency as it would allow Athens to spend more freely and point to Argentina's rapid recovery from the brink of collapse.

Riding an export boom for commodities such as soybeans and spending heavily to fuel consumer demand, Argentina became one of the fastest growing economies in the Americas with growth averaging above 8.5 percent annually between 2003 and 2007.

NO RUSH TO "GREXIT"

Yet Roberto Lavagna, Argentina's economy minister in 2002-2005 and architect of its recovery, said it was too early for Greece to consider ditching the single currency.

"Devaluation is not the central issue today, because it means leaving the euro. I don't think that is necessary."

He said, however, that creditors had to accept that Greek debt "had reached a point where it has to be restructured" and that further belt-tightening made no sense.

"Greece cannot afford to be sucked into austerity reforms," Lavagna told Reuters. "On the contrary, it needs to boost productivity which is what we did back then."

One thing that Greece does not have is an export cash cow that helped Argentina ride out of its slump.

Domingo Cavallo the former economy minister who imposed Argentina's "corralito" but lost his job before the peso devaluation a month later, warned Greece against leaving the single currency.

"The exit of Greece from the euro zone ... would produce a sharp devaluation of the drachma," Cavallo wrote in a blog this week. "Inflation would follow and it would generate a sharp reduction of real wages and pensions."

Cavallo said such a drop would be worse than declines resulting from a negotiated bailout package.

FINANCIAL SYSTEM COLLAPSE

In any case, Greeks may need to brace for more pain.

Argentina spiraled deeper into economic, political and social chaos after its "corralito" was imposed. It was a period that saw five presidents in two weeks. Crowds of young, educated Argentines emigrated to their grandparents' ancestral homes in Europe.

In 2002, the economy shrank 11 percent.

"The collapse in the financial system was in part a result of the default but also to a large extent because the government was forced to turn dollar deposits into pesos. Many of the banks had negative capital," said Alejo Costa at investment bank Puente in Buenos Aires.

"And the financial system collapse led to a collapse in production. That will be the biggest concern to Greece."

To avoid its own banking collapse, Athens needed to persuade creditors to restructure its debt and lower the purchasing power of Greeks by cutting salaries.

"Then you will have deflation and you will regain competitiveness without leaving the euro, without an exchange rate devaluation," Costa said. "But that is extremely difficult to sell to the public."

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras blames German-driven austerity for his country's economic crisis and has steadfastly refused to meet creditors' demands for further belt tightening, in particular on pensions, in return for a bailout.

The "corralito" and subsequent devaluation still haunt Argentines, who more than a decade on hold scant faith in the peso. Many express sympathy for the Greeks.

"We were saved by soy," said Walter Lorenzo, a 57-year-old television studio technician. "What's going to save them? Fishing?"

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