John Cochrane: Dollarize Argentina
By John Cochrane
Argentina should dollarize, says Mary Anastasia O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal — not a peg, not a currency board, not an IMF plan, just give up and use dollars.
Another currency crisis is roiling Argentina… The peso has lost half its value against the U.S. dollar since January. Inflation expectations are soaring.
The central bank has boosted its overnight lending rate to an annual 60% to try to stop capital flight. But Argentines are bracing for spiraling prices and recession.
…the troubles have been brewing for some time. On a trip to Buenos Aires in February, I got an earful from worried economists who said Mr. Macri was moving too slowly to reconcile fiscal accounts.
In 2016 and 2017 the government continued spending beyond its means and borrowing dollars in the international capital markets to finance the shortfall. That put pressure on the central bank to print money so as not to starve the economy of low-priced credit ahead of midterm elections in 2017….
A sharp selloff of the peso in May was followed by a new $50 billion standby loan from the International Monetary Fund in June. With a monetary base that is up over 30% since last year, in a nation that knows something about IMF intervention, that was like waving a red cape in front of a bull.
The peso was thus vulnerable when currency speculators launched an attack on the Turkish lira last month and the flight to the dollar spilled over into other emerging markets, including Argentina. After decades of repeated currency crises, Argentines can smell monetary mischief. A peso rout ensued.
Conventional Wisdom these days — the standard view around the Fed, IMF, OECD, BIS, ECB, and at NBER conferences — says that countries need their own currencies, so they can quickly devalue to address negative “shocks.” For example, conventional wisdom says that Greece would have been far better off with its own currency to devalue rather than as part of the euro. I have long been skeptical.
It’s not working out so great for Argentina. As Mary points out, short term financing means there can be “speculative attacks” on the currencies of highly indebted countries that run their own currencies, just as there can be runs on banks. And Conventional Wisdom, silent on this issue advocating a Greek return to Drachma, was full in that the Asian crises of the late 1990s were due to “sudden stops,” and such speculative machinations of international “hot money.”
Well, says CW, including the IMF’s “institutional view,” that means countries need “capital flow management,” i.e. governments need to control who can buy and sell their currency and and who can buy or sell assets internationally. Yet Venezuela and Iran are crashing too, and not for lack of capital flow “management.” My understanding is Argentina does not allow free capital either. Moreover, if there is a chance you can’t take your money out, you don’t put it in in the first place. There is a reason the post Bretton Woods international consensus drove out capital restrictions.
So I agree with Mary — dollarize. Just get it over with. What possible benefit is Argentina getting from clever central bank currency manipulation, if you want a dark word, or management, if you want a good one? Use the meter and the kilogram too.
There is a catch, however, not fully explicit in Mary’s article. The underlying problem is fiscal, not monetary. To repeat,
“Mr. Macri was moving too slowly to reconcile fiscal accounts. …In 2016 and 2017 the government continued spending beyond its means and borrowing dollars in the international capital markets to finance the shortfall.”
So, I think it’s a bit unfair for Mary to complain that Argentina’s problem is that it “has a central bank.” I don’t know what any central banker could do, given the fiscal problems, to stop the currency from crashing.
If the government dollarizes, it can no longer inflate or devalue to get out of fiscal trouble. Argentina has pretty much already lost that option anyway. If the government borrows Pesos, inflating or devaluing eliminates that debt. But if the government borrows in dollars, a devaluation or inflation taxes a much smaller base of peso holders to try to pay back the dollar debt.
Still, a dollarized government must either pay back its bills or default. That’s how the Euro was supposed to work too, until Europe’s leaders, seeing how much Greek debt was stuffed into French and German banks, burned the rule book.
So the underlying problem is fiscal. With abundant fiscal resources, the government could have borrowed abroad to stop a run on the Peso. And without those resources, dollarization will not solve its debt and deficit problem. Dollarization will force the government to shape up fast, which may be Mary’s point.
Dollarization will insulate the private economy from government fiscal troubles. This is a great, perhaps the greatest, point in its favor. Even if the government defaults, companies in a fully dollarized, free capital flow economy, can shrug it off and go about their business. Forced to use pesos, subject to sharp inflation, devaluation, capital and trade restrictions, the government’s problems infect the rest of the economy.
Last, CW likes devaluation and inflation because it supposedly “stimulates” the economy through its troubles surrounding a crisis. That strikes me as giving a cancer patient an espresso. Argentina is getting both inflation and recession, not a stimulative boom out of its inflation.
Dollarization is not a currency board, which Argentina also tried and failed. A currency board is a promise to keep the peso equal to the dollar, and to keep enough dollars around to back the pesos. Alas, it does not keep dollars around to back all the governments’ debts, so the government soon enough will see the kitty of dollars and grab them, abrogating the currency board. Dollarization means the economy uses dollars, period, and there is no pool of assets sitting there to be grabbed.