Win or lose?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When Greece lines up against Argentina at the World Cup in South Africa on Tuesday, the two sides will not appear to have much in common. Argentina, a squad packed with some of the planet’s best soccer talents, will be wondering whether it can make it to the final. Greece, a squad of ageing tryers running short of ideas, will probably be wondering what time their flight home is.

But beneath the surface, there is plenty that links these two teams. They both represent countries that have experienced economic meltdowns. Both have suffered the ignominy of being ridiculed for their handling of public finances. Both have had trouble convincing financial markets of their credibility. Both peoples have had to endure the consequences of these failures.

The similarities do not end there. Before defaulting on almost $100 billion of debt in 2001, Argentina had tied its currency to the dollar for 10 years – almost as long as Greece has been a member of the eurozone. Buenos Aires also relied on loans from the International Monetary Fund, paying a rate of 6 percent – almost as high as the one Greece is paying for its bailout package. And, despite Buenos Aires adopting austerity measures in 2001, the IMF pulled out of the South American country, triggering a default and devaluation of the peso.

“The circumstances leading to the Greek and Argentinean crises were similar – two countries with a great reputation that did not see the consequences of their excessive expansion and who counted on continued external support,” Claudio Loser, a Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum for opinion leaders, told Athens Plus

Argentina once had an economy that was as dynamic and successful as Diego Maradona, the country’s former star midfielder who now coaches the national side. But like Maradona, who suffered from drug abuse, health issues, money problems and general erratic behaviour, the Argentinean economy hit a brick wall in 2001. Greece always craved a Maradona-like economy. The good news is that it finally got it. The bad news is that it’s the fat, wheezy and unruly Maradona, not the nimble world-beater.

So, with talk of default and exit from the single currency rife in the Athens air. Is there anything that Greece can learn from Argentina? Fernando Navajas, the chief economist and director of the Buenos Aires-based FIEL think-tank believes the best advice for Greece is to be more cohesive and organized than Argentina. “I am not saying that devaluation and default could have easily been avoided but one could have minimized the costs by some collective action on the political side coupled with a professional approach to crisis management,” he told Athens Plus. “Argentina did just the opposite on both fronts. Instead of minimizing, it maximized the cost of the crisis.”

Argentina’s disorderly retreat meant that millions of people lost their savings overnight and the value of property crashed, bringing people out onto the streets in daily protests. More than 20 people lost their lives in riots. It’s no wonder that Argentineans are cautious when they hear economists recommending that Greece leave the euro and devalue the drachma.

“Do not be fooled by a sorcerer’s apprentice that tells you the Argentinean case is a good recipe for Greece,” says Navajas. “This is particularly true in the case of magic formulas that involve asymmetric conversion from euros to drachmas in the financial sector.

“If confronted with the hard choice to abandon the euro, Greece should combine collective action and high technical capabilities to think not of an unconditional exit but rather an exit-plus-reentry program,” adds the FIEL director. “Argentina never thought about reentry and has been drifting ever since.”

Argentina used the depreciation of the peso to offset declining domestic demand by making its exports cheaper in foreign markets. It sounds like a good example to follow but Greece exports hardly anything. Also, unlike Argentina, Greece is one of 12 members of a single currency and any decision to abandon the euro would have far-reaching consequences for its eurozone partners and the European Union as a whole. Even if exit and devaluation were a viable economic option, it is almost inconceivable in political terms. This leaves debt restructuring as the only realistic option on the table.

“A process of adjustment without devaluation is possible although it may require in practice a reduction in nominal salaries and declining prices for goods and services, such as tourism,” says Loser. “A situation of adjustment without a serious look at the debt is much more difficult.”

However, even restructuring carries a very heavy economic and political cost. Argentina’s decision to default may have seemed like a simple way to get rid of an onerous load but it only helped the country switch one burden for another. Since 2001, the South American country has not been able to borrow on international markets and has been involved in a protracted process to convince its creditors to accept a loss on their investment. In 2005, three-quarters accepted a bond exchange worth a third of what they had invested. Buenos Aires is currently in negotiations with the remaining creditors and has given them until June 22 – the day Greece will play Argentina – to accept a debt securities swap.

Since its default, a number of factors have helped Argentina turn its fortunes around. Chief among which was the upturn in the world economy during the last decade. Greece, on the other hand, has to clamber out of its deep hole in the middle of a global recession. Also, Argentina’s success has come at a price – increased government spending that has been funded in part by central bank reserves and nationalized pension funds. Many economists have been scathing about this tactic, accusing the government of President Cristina Fernandez, who dismissed the rescue plan for Greece as being “condemned to fail”, of having no economic plan and burning its way through the country’s savings

“Argentina’s default and devaluation was a one-way journey without any careful planning that damaged the reputation of the country and affected its long-term growth prospects,” says Navajas. “This has been hidden by the extraordinary external conditions after the crisis, which will not be available for Greece, and which have led to confusion about the causes of recovery.”

It’s evident from Argentina’s experience that despite what some may say, default and exit from the euro are options that Greece should avoid considering. Or, at least if it does, then it should think its strategy through properly, something Greek governments do not have a very good track record of doing. Of course, there is always the possibility that, as with Argentina, its financial backers will just lose confidence in Greece and default/devaluation will not be a matter of opinion but a matter of course.

“The big message is that even with significant resources, there is a point when the rest of the world – or Europe and the IMF in Greece’s case – will not be willing to continue the support, even if they support others, such as Portugal, Spain and Ireland, because they are seen as more virtuous,” says Loser. “This is exactly what happened with Brazil and Uruguay at the time of the Argentinean crisis.”

There are clearly many things that Greece can learn from Argentina but perhaps the most useful one is that, as the national soccer team is likely to find out on Tuesday, when your back is up against the wall, there is no easy way to end up on the winning side.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 18, 2010.

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