Argentine peso recovering after record low against dollar

Liliana SAMUEL
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Pedestrians walk by a Buenos Aires exchange bureau where the buy-sell board displays the Argentine peso exchange values

Argentina's peso was recovering on Friday after President Mauricio Macri's bid to secure accelerated IMF funding sparked two days of crashes that sent it to a record low against the dollar.

The peso recovered almost five percent on Friday to end the day at 37.98 to the dollar, as the Central Bank sold $250 million of its reserves to put the brakes on the peso's plummet.

It had lost 20 percent of its value over the previous two days.

The peso was trading at almost 40 to the dollar at the end of Thursday after the Central Bank hiked interest rates to 60 percent -- the highest in the world -- in a desperate bid to stabilize a currency in freefall since Macri revealed the day before he had asked the International Monetary Fund to advance the remainder of an agreed $50 billion loan.

An initial $15 billion tranche was released by the IMF when the three-year stand-by loan was agreed in June, with another $3 billion due next month.

Part of that first installment was meant to help shore up the peso, but that backfired after Macri's announcement as the crisis in investor confidence deepened.

"It is now unclear if that will be enough to stabilize the government's finances amid persistent reserve drain," said Europe-based Deutsche Bank analyst Jim Reid.

Argentina's currency has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the dollar since the start of 2018, when the rate was 18 to one.

Inflation over the last 12 months is at around 30 percent.

"It's a worrying situation, our salaries have lost 15 percent of their value," said 46-year-old bank employee, Monica Vaccaro.

- 'Confident' -

Finance Minister Nicolas Dujovne is heading to Washington next week to "continue to progress" talks with the IMF on "additional disbursements in 2019."

The IMF released a statement saying its "goal is to rapidly conclude these talks and submit the revised economic plan to the Executive Board."

Chief spokesman Gerry Rice said the IMF was "confident that the strong commitment and determination of the Argentine authorities will help the country overcome the current difficulties."

Argentina isn't out of the water yet, according to independent researchers Capital Economics, who released a report warning that "investor confidence is fragile."

And it said that if the "government fails to deliver a convincing austerity plan on Monday" that would be a "trigger for further falls in the peso."

Macri's request had seen the peso lose almost 7.0 percent on Wednesday and when it opened on Thursday down another 4.0 percent, the Central Bank decided to intervene, pledging to keep interest rates at 60 percent until December at least.

But that measure didn't stop the fall as the peso ended the day down 13.5 percent.

On Friday, the S&P ratings agency placed Argentina's short- and long-term credit ratings under review for a possible downgrade.

Although it praised Macri's efforts to "stabilize the economy through difficult austerity measures," it said that "recent pressure on the Argentine currency could jeopardize the effective implementation of economic adjustment measures."

- 'Transformation, not failure' -

Cabinet Chief Marcos Pena had tried to downplay the crash, saying: "We are not facing economic failure.

"This is a transformation, not failure. In that transformation there are difficult moments."

The peso crash did at least have a positive impact on markets, though, with the Merval index on the Buenos Aires stock market jumping 5.34 percent by close on Thursday on the back of strong performances in the petroleum sector, notably by Brazilian giant Petrobras.

Macri's government has committed to reducing its budget deficit to 2.7 percent this year, from 3.9 percent in 2017, and to 1.3 percent of GDP next year in return for IMF support.

Speaking on Thursday at the opening of the Council of the Americas business chamber in Buenos Aires, Pena blamed Argentina's economic woes on the free-spending policies of Macri's predecessor, Cristina Kirchner and her left-wing government.

Deutsche Bank's Reid says Argentina is managing its "currency crisis in a more conventional manner" now with the central bank raising interest rates "to the highest in the world."

But he said IMF disbursements could lead to "a tighter fiscal deficit target," which could in turn provoke more currency fluctuations.