Argentina: A Lesson for America?


Argentina: A Lesson for America?

Argentina nationalizes YPF as cracks in the global economy grow. Is there a warning for the U.S.?

Argentina holds the dubious distinction of being the only First World nation to become Third World. If it is any consolation, it won’t hold that title for long.

America holds a couple of dubious distinctions too. It is the richest nation in the world. Yet, it is also its most indebted. One in seven Americans is being actively pursued by debt collectors. America also has the world’s largest military. But to pay for it, it has to beg money from one of its biggest rivals, China.

Americans are either ignorant or think they are immune to the lessons of history.

Argentina once thought it was immune to history too.

The country’s very name means “silver.” And for generations, Argentina lived up to its glittery name. At one point, it was the seventh wealthiest nation on Earth. Its rich mines poured out gold and silver. Its vast river system—the second most conductive to trade and transport in the world after the Mississippi basin—helped Argentina’s many agricultural exports inundate global market places.

In the early 20th century, the term “as rich as an Argentine” summed up life in the South American superpower.

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson points out that when Argentine President Juan Peron first visited the nation’s central bank in the mid 1940s, he marveled that “there is so much gold you can hardly walk through the corridors.”

But, as they say, that was then. Not long after, Argentina gained its dubious distinction: the only First World country to become Third World.

A socialist revolution later and Argentina was never the same. The good old days were gone. And so was the nation’s gold. It was redistributed—in the name of fairness. In this case, the money went from the industrialists and big farmers to the labor unions and military. The average worker didn’t benefit much.

Eventually, Argentine leaders ran out of other people’s money to redistribute. So they began printing it.

Hyperinflation and civil war followed. But still, the Perons are glorified by the befuddled masses who think Peron actually helped them.

Decades and three debt defaults have passed, but the lessons remain unlearned. During the debt default and hyperinflation of 1989, stores didn’t even bother putting price tags on the goods because prices went up multiple times a day. Wages rose much slower. The middle class was wiped out. If you had U.S. dollars in Argentina, you could buy brand new sky-rise condos in downtown Buenos Aires for the price of a dilapidated small-town three bedroom in Oklahoma. It is not that Argentines had no money: They had lots of pesos—they just weren’t worth anything.

Fast forward to 2012 and we see Argentine politicians are getting desperate for money again so they can continue with the same populist policies. And what do politicians do when they get desperate for money? They do what Argentine politicians have repeatedly done. It’s the same thing failed governments around the world and throughout history have done.

They adopt Zimbabwean policy. Through taxation, inflation or outright confiscation, they steal other people’s money.

On Tuesday, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner abruptly left the Summit of the Americas to return home and announce on national tv that the government had seized and nationalized ypf. ypf was the largest oil company in the country. The former Spanish owners could cry all they wanted.

“Our model is one of recovering our sovereignty,” she said. It is time that Argentina took control of its own resources. What she really meant was it is time Argentina took control of ypf’s bank accounts.

The country is suffering capital flight as investors are heading for the exits. At airports, trained dogs search—not for illegal drugs, but for people smuggling dollars out.

Why the rush for the doors? What is so bad about Argentina? Here is a recent rundown.

In 2008, the government nationalized all private pension plans across the nation. That was supposed to keep the people’s money “safe” from fluctuations in the bond and stock markets. In actuality it was to keep the overspending government’s credit rating safe. It failed on both counts.

In 2010, as Argentine finances deteriorated, Kirchner made a grab for the central bank’s assets—especially the nation’s all-important foreign currency reserves. When the head of the central bank refused, he was summarily fired and replaced with someone more pliable.

What’s in store for Argentina next? The new head of Argentina’s central bank recently stated that there is “no correlation” between money printing and inflation. Ha.

Now we know how Argentina plans to pay its bills. And that means the Argentine peso is headed for the gutter. Argentines should be having flashbacks to the tumultuous 1980s.

But with the global economy is such a shaky condition, it wouldn’t take much to set off a chain reaction. Remember the so-called Asian flu that struck in 1997. That economic meltdown started in little Thailand. But before it finished it had caused currency collapses all around Southeast Asia. Argentina is a lot more important to the global economy than Thailand was.

But perhaps there is an even greater warning for America.

America is adopting many of the same failed policies as Argentina. Over recent years the government has nationalized virtually the whole mortgage industry in America. It nationalized the biggest insurance company (aig) as well as a portion of America’s largest vehicle manufacturer (GM). It may be on its way to nationalizing the health-care industry. The post-secondary university system is more dependent on government than ever. The student loan industry was commandeered by the government.

And as criminal as it was for Argentina to seize private pensions, at least it was out in the open. What America does with Social Security is worse than confiscation because it is deceiving its people. In case you didn’t realize it, the Social Security trust fund is empty. Politicians have spent it all. In return, the fund just holds a bunch of paper ious.

Then there is all the rhetoric about the greedy oil companies and oil speculators that are supposedly driving up the cost of gasoline. It reads like a Kirchner speech. In 2011, Kirchner blamed the greedy farmers for the soaring price of beef. So she instituted beef export limits, which caused the price of beef to temporarily plummet—until it put all the marginally profitable farmers and all their workers and related industry out of business. The national livestock headcount shrunk by 15 percent in just one year. But now that the initial excess supply has been eaten, prices are going back up again. Only now, many farming jobs are gone. And the ranchers have less money to pay workers and buy machinery.

The result: Argentina—a nation renowned for its beef—now exports more fish.

And remember that money-printing central banker the Argentines installed? He is small fry compared to the guy America has running its central bank. Over the past few years, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has not only loaned out trillions of dollars to private banks (money that didn’t exist before he loaned it out), but has printed up close to $2 trillion more to cover federal government shortfalls. Now he is printing and spending money purchasing mortgages, and analysts are anticipating the Fed will start printing money to prop up everything from the student loan market to credit cards and the car loan industry.

America is looking a lot like Argentina.

Tremors are shaking the global economy. Argentina may hold the distinction of being the only First World nation to become Third World. But if America keeps doing what it’s doing, it is a distinction Argentina won’t hold for long.