Argentina approves economic measures aimed at ending crisis

Argentina's new President Alberto Fernandez speaks during his inauguration ceremony in Buenos Aires on December 10, 2019

Argentina's center-left government approved on Monday a package of emergency measures aimed at lifting the South American country out of its worst economic crisis in years.

Argentina is in a recession caused by a currency collapse that struck 18 months ago.

Poverty levels in the country of 44 million still top 40 percent -- in a country that was among the world's wealthiest in the early 20th century.

The emergency economic package was announced by new President Alberto Fernandez, who took office two weeks ago with a vow to put Argentina back on its feet.

The emergency measures were announced just after 5:00 pm in the government's Official Bulletin -- several hours after it was expected due to some last-minute changes.

Fernandez's plan involves tax hikes on foreign currency purchases, agricultural exports and car sales.

The government says the tax hikes will only affect the upper and middle classes.

The bill passed the lower house of Congress on Friday and the Senate on Saturday.

Fernandez has described this crisis as almost as bad as that of 2001 -- when Argentina defaulted on a $100 billion debt.

Its current foreign debt stands at around 90 percent of GDP.

"It is not the same as 2001. But it is similar. At that time, poverty was at 57 percent, today we have 41 percent poor people; then we had a debt default, today we are in virtual default," Fernandez said in an interview with TV program La Cornice on Sunday.

- 'Tackle hunger' -

The new law will allow the executive extra powers over finance, tax, administration, pensions, tariffs, energy, health and social issues.

The government's aim is to "attend to the needs of the most vulnerable sectors and to ... spark growth," Social Security Administration chief Alejandro Vanoli said.

The government has vowed to "tackle hunger" and has announced a 10,000 ($160) peso bonus for pensioners and a six-month freeze on public utility prices.

"It's a difficult situation, it's a country that has had to restructure its debt, with a deep fiscal and financial deficit, in a situation of recession and inflation," said Vanoli.

"The state is putting all its efforts into those suffering the most from the social situation."

Market-friendly liberal ex-president Mauricio Macri had planned in September to negotiate a restructuring of debt repayments with the International Monetary Fund, with which he'd agreed a $57 billion bailout loan last year.

Argentina has already received $44 billion of that loan but Fernandez has said that he will refuse the remaining disbursements.

He told reporters on Monday an IMF delegation is due in Argentina "in the next few days."

- 'Huge freefall' -

Argentina's economy is expected to shrink by 3.1 percent in 2019, inflation is hovering around 55 percent and unemployment is rising to 10.5 percent.

"That's what we inherited. We can't face up to it and pay the obligations that we've been landed with," Fernandez said on Sunday, as he made comparisons with the 2001 crisis.

"We had massive unemployment, we also have that now. What we didn't have (then) is inflation (but) now we have it."

Economist Claudio Loser of the Washington-based Centennial Group says Fernandez wants to "make it clear to creditors that they're going to have to negotiate a restructuring with Argentina."

"He's referring to a virtual default to dramatize the situation and show that Macri left him a huge problem."

On Friday, Argentina unilaterally postponed a $9 billion maturities payment until August, a move that saw rating agencies Fitch and S&P downgrade its credit rating.

On Monday, though, Fitch restored Argentina's rating to "CC" from "restricted default" but warned of "a high probability of another default of some kind."

"We're in a huge freefall ... in two years, Argentina has massively increased its debt," said Fernandez.

Argentina owes $335 billion, just over 90 percent of its gross domestic product.

That figure was a little over 50 percent in 2016, soon after Macri came to power.

One of Argentina's main problems is its people prefer to hold dollars rather than pesos, meaning they try to sell their local currency and often keep their dollars in foreign bank accounts.

"Argentina has no more dollars. Macri lost $100 billion. Argentina needs dollars to come back in," said Fernandez, who has maintained the monthly $200 limit of buying foreign currency imposed by Macri last August.

"Dollars are scarce, as there aren't any, they have to be expensive" to buy, he said.