Argentina’s newly elected government announced Wednesday that it will lift currency controls that have long kept the peso artificially strong, and allow the currency to float freely when markets open Thursday in Buenos Aires. While the move is likely to boost exports and spark economic growth, it might also fuel inflation, which already stands at a staggering 25 percent.
“We said that we were going to lift currency controls when the conditions were right and today the conditions are right,” Argentina’s Finance Minister Alfonso Prat-Gay reportedly said, adding that he expects the peso to plunge nearly 30 percent, from the current official exchange rate of 10 pesos to the dollar.
The move -- which came on the day the U.S. Federal Reserve hiked its benchmark interest rate for the first time in nearly a decade -- is likely to spark the country’s biggest currency depreciation since the economic meltdown in 2002, when the caretaker government of Eduardo Duhalde allowed the currency to float freely in the market. The peso is expected to drop from 9.8 per dollar to the black-market rate of between 14 and 15 per dollar, according to media reports.
“Currency controls managed to kill the supply of dollars and didn’t stop demand,” Prat-Gay said. “Ending the currency controls is the starting point for getting the economy back on its feet.”
He also said that the government is negotiating with a group of international banks to open a credit line of over $5 billion -- funds that would be used to replenish the country’s severely depleted international reserves.
The move comes just days after Mauricio Macri -- an avowed free-market capitalist -- came to power on the promise of ending over a decade of “Kirchnerism,” named after former presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, Néstor Kirchner.
Cristina’s tenure was marked by strict currency controls, trade protectionism, heavy taxes on agricultural exports and widespread allegations of systemic corruption. Over the past four years, during which Cristina used the central bank’s reserves to prop up the peso, the bank’s foreign exchange reserves have plummeted from over $52 billion to around $24 billion.
Farmers in Argentina, a grain-exporting powerhouse, have also been waiting for the peso to weaken before selling their massive stockpiles of soybeans, corn and wheat -- estimated to be worth as much as $11.4 billion. The currency devaluation will give them an incentive to sell their crops.
“In the end, nobody knows how fast the depreciation is going to be, if it will occur in a matter of days, or it may take a little longer. And, of course, that is going to depend on the intervention of the central bank,” Goldman Sachs economist Mauro Roca told the Wall Street Journal.