Submitted by Martin Sibileau of A View from the Trenches blog,
“…The Argentine government jawboned the foreign exchange market more efficiently than Draghi did with the gold market upon the insinuation that Cyprus would sell its gold…”
I am back from a brief trip to Argentina’s Patagonia, where I could confirm first-hand the irreversible damage caused by interventionist policies: Widespread poverty, abandoned infrastructure, scarcity of consumer goods, unseen unemployment and criminality, etc. I could also see for myself the madness of hedging against inflation with the purchase of new cars. The streets of any forgotten small town in Patagonia are filled with brand new 4×4 vehicles that would be the envy of many in North America.
While visiting too, the Argentine government made a new move to suppress the price of the physical US dollar. In previous articles (here and here), I made the case that the broken US dollar market in Argentina would provide insights into what we may eventually expect from the gold market, if it broke in the same fashion. However, I had underestimated the magnitude of the USD physical market. Zerohedge brought attention to this point a few days ago (here).
In August of 2011, Argentina’s government slowly began to implement a series of actions destined to curtail the right of citizens to access US dollars (foreign exchange in general). The goal was and is to force savings into pesos, as pesos are after the taxable asset in a country that cannot access capital markets and fully monetizes its deficits.
From that moment onward physical US dollars started to trade at a premium. Last week, with the paper US dollar value at 5.11 pesos, that premium was over 100%. Physical US dollars, i.e. dollars outside the system, reached a bid/ask of 10.30/10.45 pesos. The chart below should help visualize this dynamic (source: Reuters/La Nación)
The latest move: Tax moratorium to repatriate capital
With a 100% premium over the “official” price of the US dollar, on May 7th, the federal government announced a moratorium for off-shore capital (see here, in Spanish). A simple reading of this measure would reveal a government encouraging capital inflows to an investments-starving nation. The moratorium, after all, is for capital directed to the real estate and energy sectors. The real intention behind it is, however, to narrow the gap between the official and black market price of the US dollar, via manipulation of the “official” price, as I will show further below. At the official price, of course, one finds no sellers.
The moratorium is a tax pardon, no questions asked, for all Argentines who decide to bring onshore their undeclared US dollars deposited offshore. Although it is not clear yet whether the declared funds can be freely disposed of, the government seeks that they be applied to the purchase 2016 4% bonds issued by the federal government or USD certificates, issued by the central bank. These USD denominated certificates (see image below, source: La Nacion) are to be used to clear transactions in the real estate sector, are fully endorsable and have no maturity. In other words, the government wants to further segment the US dollar market.
I can’t help speculating that years into the future, one would see a developed country implementing a similar measure to repatriate undeclared gold.
How it works
The tax moratorium is a simple transaction. Let’s forget about the USD certificates issued by the central bank that pay no interest and assume that the public will accept them like US dollars. We are talking about a public that already holds 1 every 15 US dollar bills in the world. My view is that these will not prosper, because I doubt that anyone selling real estate would be willing to take them at face value.
We are left with the 4% coupon bonds issued by the federal government, maturing in 2016, which are bought by offshore depositors. The figure below shows the accounting:
By now it should be clear that if the Argentine government had only wanted to attract offshore capital to fund investments, there would have been no need to have the Government Issue interest paying certificates.
It is also obvious that for this policy to be successful, offshore depositors must believe that declared, taxable, interest paying USD certificates are better than holding US dollars off-shore. But if these certificates are to be liquid, the discount in the secondary market should be lower than 12% approximately, in the absence of counterparty risk (4% x 3 years). And with the Federal Government of Argentina as the issuer, there is no doubt that counterparty risk is real and present. Preliminarily the government expects $4 billion to be declared.
One would find this measure laughable, as it is absolutely evident that one is better off holding undeclared funds offshore than facing scrutiny to earn a 4% interest on a certificate issued by the government of a country that defaulted on its debt and has no access to the capital markets. Yet, in this new normal world we live in, with the announcement, the price of the US dollar fell to 8.87 pesos, which represents a considerable 13.9% drop. To put the reaction in perspective, the Argentine government jawboned the foreign exchange market more efficiently than Draghi did with the gold market upon the insinuation that Cyprus would sell its gold.
It is also a known fact that financial repression in Argentina is a publicly disclosed policy, and some may attribute the drop to the same. But I cannot deny that the reaction surprised me. If the measure is successful, would the success indicate that monies currently offshore are perceived to be in far greater danger than in a country where they can be laundered into the energy sector? To finance a company that was confiscated in 2012 to the Spanish crown?
Regardless of the initial drop (the closing price on Friday May 17th was 8.95 pesos, while the official price was 5.25 pesos), one wonders if the Argentine government can sustainably manipulate the price of the US dollar, assuming the certificates are accepted in the market, and if there are lessons to be learned here.
Without changing the terms of the tax moratorium, Argentina’s government could replicate the tactics of the gold cartel to suppress the price of the US dollar. The way to achieve this is by expanding the credit multiplier, as shown below:
The figure above shows that with the US Dollars repatriated and in the balance sheet of the Federal Government (assets), it could be possible, assuming that the certificates are accepted, to generate a credit pyramid in the system. If the certificates are accepted in deposit by banks (step 2 above), these can use them to expand their USD loan base (just like bullion banks use the gold ETFs to expand their gold loans).
This scheme would suppress the price of the US dollar (just like gold loans suppress the price of gold), in a country where depositors have not lost their deposits to their banks (i.e. in a country where people trust their banks). But we all know this is not the case with Argentina. However, I can imagine that the 4% coupon of the certificates will not carved in stone. Would a 20% interest on USD certificates encourage certificate holders to leave them in deposit? It did in 2001, and with Argentina’s holdouts still alive and fighting, this alternative scheme would allow the government to source US dollars and keep kicking the can until the next election.
Nevertheless, with an ever increasing fiscal deficit, it would take an equally growing amount of leverage (on the bonds) to keep the party going. But remember: This whole intellectual exercise is based on the assumption that the bonds trade in the secondary market and that one can only produce a tax moratorium every few years….
If the “bancos” had to offer a high interest rate to use the bonds as collateral (say, above 20% or most likely above the actual inflation rate), the Banco Central (i.e. not the Federal Government that issues the 4% bonds) would feel tempted to directly subsidize the banks, while earning a laughable amount, from its US dollar bills. This subsidy would be required to maintain a positive net interest margin, because I doubt that the bancos would be able to make any significant USD loans at such rates. There is a precedent to this in the Cuenta de Regulación Monetaria, established in 1977.
We can now see that the sustainability of the manipulation in a segmented/broken foreign exchange market causes a negative carry, which would create a quasi-fiscal deficit in Argentina (i.e. the deficit of the Banco Central), fully opening the gates to hyperinflation. I have made the point in earlier letters (here) that the same could be conceived to happen with the manipulation in the price of gold. This latest example from Argentina serves therefore as another experiment in the history of failed manipulations.
One last comment: Because the scheme is so visibly unsustainable, the temporary drop in the price of US dollar bills (i.e. physical US dollars) will attract a higher demand of said US dollar bills, forcing the leverage provided by the certificates to grow exponentially. In the week of the announcement, USD deposits fell another 96 million. This is the same behaviour seen in physical gold.
What makes the gold market of 2013 different?
As gold is a commodity, there is no counterparty risk: Either the gold is or isn’t where it is supposed to be. This makes the gold market less flexible than, say the foreign exchange market just described above. Why? There cannot be an interest rate in gold paper that will keep investors in the Ponzi scheme, just like there is one for US dollar bonds in Argentina.
For instance, if a gold ETF (or any commodity ETF for this purpose) offered a coupon, it would raise all kinds of suspicions, unless we are in a system where gold is allowed to compete with legal tender, in which case too, there would not be a need for gold ETFs. This means that in order to keep its price suppressed, the gold market requires outright fraud. It also means that the only way that such fraud can be resolved is with plain and swift confiscation, because once revealed, no interest rate will clear the market.
If it is correct, as reported, that 1 out of every 15 US dollar bills is held by an Argentine, it is easy to see why the retail US dollar investor in Argentina managed to break the market and keep the official manipulation at bay. This is not the case with the global gold market today, but it was certainly not the case in Argentina of the ‘70s either, when the decline of its economy began to show itself as evident.