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Argentina dampens hopes of quick deal with IMF

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Argentina’s economy minister played down the prospects of an early deal with the IMF to repay a controversial $44bn loan, as the country’s year-old leftist government tries to build a domestic consensus on how to end its economic crisis

After successfully restructuring $65bn of foreign debt with private creditors in August, the government’s attention has turned to talks with the IMF, which began this month. Markets hope this will lead to a new programme that could help to reverse a crisis of confidence that has stoked fears of an imminent devaluation of the peso.

“We are fine. We have the instruments to maintain [exchange rate stability],” insisted Martín Guzmán, economy minister, in an interview with the Financial Times. He argued that there was no need for Argentina to seek further help from China, after the central bank renewed a currency swap deal with the Asian country for $19bn in August for another three years, to bolster alarmingly low foreign exchange reserves.

“The most important aspect is to get [the new programme] right. We want to move at a solid pace but require common understanding and legitimacy. We are not going to rush this,” added the 38-year-old economist.

A deal by March or April “would certainly be acceptable”, he said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t come before that, but there are no guarantees.”

The negotiations with the IMF come as Argentina seeks a way out of a three-year long recession. That downturn began after a currency crisis in 2018 that prompted the fund to come to the rescue with a record-breaking $57bn programme — making Argentina the institution’s biggest debtor by far. The recession was made worse by the coronavirus crisis, which prompted the government of President Alberto Fernández to implement one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world.

Mr Guzmán spoke from his offices opposite the presidential palace in Buenos Aires over the din of tens of thousands of rowdy Argentines who had gathered to pay their respects to Diego Maradona, the legendary footballer who died on Wednesday. The economy minister played down calls from independent economists for Argentina to seek further cheap financing from the fund.

“We have to be very careful when borrowing in foreign currency,” he said, warning that exports had been weak over the past seven years, a key factor in the sustainability of Argentina’s debt.

But some say the alternatives are worse: unable to borrow on the international capital markets, Argentina is forced instead to resort to covering the bulk of its expenditure through new money printed by the central bank, which pushed the monthly inflation rate up to 3.8 per cent in October. 

Nevertheless, Mr Guzmán said that it would be “beneficial” to secure more funding from other multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, especially to finance public infrastructure projects. 

As Argentina prepares to embark on its 22nd programme with the IMF over the past six decades, Mr Guzmán insisted that austerity — the linchpin of most of those programmes — was not the answer to the economy’s woes. 

“The 2018 programme was based on that same tenet and it didn’t work. The evidence is overwhelming that fiscal adjustments in recessions don’t work — and it’s not what we’re doing,” he said.

Mr Guzmán insisted that restoring order to Argentina’s fiscal accounts did not mean reducing spending. In fact, Argentina was increasing spending in real terms in high-impact areas, he said.

Similarly, Mr Guzmán pledged that a devaluation was not on the cards, although he admitted that the gap between the official and parallel exchange rates was a problem. “It will take time [to fix], as we can’t remove capital controls [yet],” he said, pointing to the need to accumulate foreign exchange reserves first. 

“When you look at the trade numbers, the official exchange rate is at the right level . . . the situation with the [parallel exchange rate] is to do with financial flows that have nothing to do with the real economy,” he said, adding that “the IMF understands that a devaluation would have destabilising consequences at an economic and social level”.

Mr Guzmán also rejected accusations by some analysts of inconsistencies in economic policy, which they say are caused by contrasting priorities among the ruling coalition that ranges from pragmatic centrists to more ideologically driven members on the hard left. 

Recent overtures to the private sector by Mr Guzmán — based on an understanding that sustained economic growth requires private investment — conflict with anti-business moves from other players in the coalition, notably the country’s Congress. Critics point to a law aimed at preventing shortages, a wealth tax going through Congress and a scathing letter sent to the IMF by a group of senators loyal to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the powerful vice-president.

“It all goes in the same direction,” insisted Mr Guzmán.

“In a crisis in the context of a pandemic, the state plays an important role to protect the most vulnerable and co-ordinate actions to maintain stability — but that is a role that will no longer be necessary in an economy that has restored macroeconomic stability,” he said.

Achieving sustained economic growth in the longer term once the economy has been stabilised is perhaps Argentina’s greatest challenge, however. Mr Guzmán highlights the importance of developing domestic capital markets in order to allow greater saving. That would in turn allow greater investment by the private sector, which he hopes will become “a fundamental engine for the economy”.



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Bolsonaro faces investigation over election fraud claims

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Brazilian politics updates

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s legal problems have multiplied after a court opened an investigation into his unsubstantiated warnings of voter fraud in presidential elections next year, a probe which could lead to him being disqualified from running.

The judicial inquiry comes as the far-right leader’s ratings are on the slide following accusations of his incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than half a million Brazilians.

Rising living costs and allegations of corruption in vaccine procurement within his administration have damaged Bolsonaro’s standing further.

With political pressure building, the populist has increased attacks on the electronic voting system in recent weeks, reiterating calls for the adoption of printed paper receipts in order to avoid manipulation.

Opponents fear the former army captain is seeking to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, in preparation for refusing to recognise a potential defeat. A group of 18 current and former Supreme Court justices have defended the current ballot system, which was introduced in 1996, insisting that Brazil had eliminated election fraud.

The Superior Electoral Court this week opened an administrative probe into Bolsonaro over his claims, for which he has provided no evidence. It also asked the Supreme Court to investigate whether the president had committed a crime by disseminating fake news about the voting system.

The president hit back on Tuesday. “I will not accept intimidation. I will continue to exercise my right as a citizen, to freedom of expression, criticism, to listen, and to meet, above all, the popular will,” Bolsonaro told supporters in Brasília.

The electoral court’s intervention showed the judiciary was striking back against Bolsonaro’s attacks, said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper in São Paulo. “He [Bolsonaro] is harming the rules of the game, of democracy and the institutions,” he added. “It’s not different to what [Donald] Trump did, and demagogues in other countries. His intention is to question the electoral process without proof.”

Both moves by the electoral court could in theory eventually pave the way for Bolsonaro being barred from standing in the 2022 poll.

“There is a long way until this can bring actual legal consequences against the president which might affect his eligibility,” said Rogério Taffarello, a partner in criminal law at Mattos Filho and professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “[This] does not mean, of course, that the existence of such investigations cannot generate political consequences”.

The president is already the subject of a criminal investigation into whether he failed to act on warnings about alleged irregularities by public officials in negotiations over vaccine purchases. Bolsonaro and the government deny any wrongdoing.

Protesters have taken to the streets in cities over the past two months calling for the impeachment of Bolsonaro, who in polls is trailing former leftwing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also a likely frontrunner in next year’s election.

Bolsonaro had long promised to present evidence of cheating in elections, even claiming that the 2018 ballot he won was tampered with. Yet last week he admitted to not holding any proof, only “indications”.

Despite his falling popularity, Bolsonaro retains backing in Congress from an amorphous grouping of centre-right political parties known as the Centrão, or “Big Centre”. Analysts said for now this support appeared to be holding.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice



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South Korea looks to fintech as household debt balloons to $1.6tn

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South Korea Economy updates

After her family business of ferrying drunk people home was hit by closures of bars due to Covid-19 curfews and social distancing, Lee Young-mi* found herself juggling personal debts of about Won30m ($26,000).

The 56-year-old resident of Suncheon in South Korea was already struggling to pay off or refinance four credit cards, but now faces the prospect of those debts rapidly multiplying after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ve had little income for more than a year as not many people are out drinking until late into the night,” said Lee. “Now my husband won’t be able to work at all for the next three months after his surgery.”

Lee’s story is playing out across Asia’s fourth-largest economy as self-employed workers, who make up nearly a third of the labour force, have seen their incomes reduced sharply due to coronavirus restrictions. Now, after struggling for years to keep a lid on household debts that hit a record Won1,765tn ($1.6tn) in March, Seoul is looking to fintech companies and peer-to-peer lenders for answers. 

Chart showing increase in South Korea's household debt

Among them is PeopleFund, which touts tech-based investment products backed by machine learning that allow borrowers to refinance their higher-interest loans from banks and credit card companies.

The company has loaned at least $1bn to more than 7,500 customers since it was established in 2015. Its products allow borrowers to switch their debts to fixed-rate, amortised loans at annual interest rates of about 11 per cent, a change from the riskier floating rate, interest-only loans common in South Korea. 

PeopleFund has received about Won96.7bn in financing from brokerage CLSA, and along with Lendit and 8Percent is one of the first among the country’s 250 shadow banks to win a peer-to-peer lending licence. 

“The country’s most serious household debt problem is with unsecured non-bank loans, whose pricing has been too high. We can offer more affordable loans to ordinary people unable to receive bank loans,” Joey Kim, chief executive of PeopleFund, told the Financial Times.

The proliferation of digital lenders and fintechs in South Korea, where higher-risk borrowers are often cut off from bank financing, has been encouraged by the country’s government.

“We hope that P2P lenders will help resolve the dichotomy in the credit market by increasing the access of low-income people to mid-interest loans,” said an official at the Financial Supervisory Service.

South Korea’s household debt situation has become more pressing since the onset of the pandemic, with increases in borrowing for mortgages, to cover stagnating wages and to invest in the booming stock market. South Korean households are among the world’s most heavily indebted, with the average debt equal to 171.5 per cent of annual income.

South Korea’s household debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 103.8 per cent at the end of last year, compared with an average 62.1 per cent of 43 countries surveyed by the Bank for International Settlements.

Much of the new debt has been risky. Unsecured household loans from non-bank financial institutions were Won116.9tn as of March, up 33 per cent from four years ago, according to the Bank of Korea, much of it high interest loans taken out by poorer borrowers.

Getting on top of the problem has taken on national importance. In a rare warning in June, the central bank said the combination of high asset prices and excessive borrowing risked triggering a sell-off in markets and a rapid debt deleveraging.

“If financial imbalances increase further, this could dent our mid-to-long-term economic growth prospects,” BoK governor Lee Ju-yeol said in July.

The country’s economic planners, however, are struggling to contain debt-fuelled asset bubbles without undermining South Korea’s fragile economic recovery.

The government has attempted to address the danger by tightening lending rules. Regulators in July lowered the country’s maximum legal interest rate that private lenders can charge their customers from 24 to 20 per cent.

Economists caution that rising debt levels increase South Korea’s vulnerability to an economic shock. 

They also warn that the asset quality of financial institutions could be hit by a jump in distressed loans when the BoK rolls back monetary easing, expected in the fourth quarter.

“Monetary tightening is needed to curb asset bubbles but this will increase the household debt burden, holding back consumption further,” said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul. “The government is facing a dilemma.”

For Lee Young-mi, however, the 11 per cent rate offered by the PeopleFund is still too high. “I am not sure how to pay back the debt.”

*The name has been changed



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European and Chinese stocks rise after calming words from Beijing

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Chinese equities updates

European shares chased gains in China after calls from Beijing for greater co-operation with Washington helped sooth jitters over a regulatory crackdown in the world’s biggest emerging market.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 index rose 0.7 per cent on Monday to hit new all-time highs, while the UK’s FTSE 100 rose 1 per cent led by economically sensitive stocks including banks and energy groups. London-listed lender HSBC gained 1 per cent after it reported second-quarter figures that easily beat analysts’ expectations.

The gains came after the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Beijing’s market regulator, called on Sunday for closer co-operation with Washington, stressing the country’s efforts to improve transparency and predictability after a crackdown on tutoring groups obliterated the market value of the $100bn sector’s biggest companies.

Chinese listings in the US have become a geopolitical flashpoint as Beijing has sought to exert greater control over the country’s powerful tech sector. The US Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday that Chinese groups that sought to sell shares in America would be subject to stricter disclosures.

Shares in China rebounded after their worst month in almost three years, with China’s CSI 300 benchmark of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed blue-chips rose 2.6 per cent on Monday, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index added 1.1 per cent. The city’s Hang Seng Tech index, which tracks big internet groups including Tencent and Alibaba, reversed early losses to rise 1 per cent. Futures tracking Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index climbed 0.6 per cent.

Last month, China’s cyber-security regulator announced plans to review all foreign listings by companies with data on more than 1m users after top leaders in Beijing called for an overhaul of how the country regulates initial public offerings in the US. The crackdown came just days after the $4.4bn listing of ride-hailing group Didi Chuxing.

The intensifying scrutiny of how Chinese groups access capital markets has pummelled stocks, delivering the worst month for China tech groups listed in the US since the global financial crisis. The Hang Seng Tech index fell 17 per cent last month.

“While we do not consider it prudent to completely avoid investments in China, further volatility can be expected until the first quarter of 2022, by which time we believe most regulatory changes may already be in place,” analysts at Credit Suisse wrote in a note on Monday.

Meanwhile, data released by China at the weekend showed that factory activity grew at the slowest pace in 15 months in July as demand contracted for the first time in more than a year.

Government bonds were steady with the yield on the benchmark German 10-year Bund, which moves inversely to its price, gaining 0.01 percentage points to minus 0.45. The equivalent US 10-year yield was steady at 1.234 per cent.

Bond yields have been falling in recent weeks, despite higher than expected inflation readings in the US and indications from the US federal Reserve last week that it was moving a step closer to the day when it would start tapering its $120bn in monthly asset purchases.

The euro rose 0.1 per cent against the dollar to $1.1885, while the pound gained 0.1 per cent to purchase $1.3924. Prices for global oil benchmark Brent crude fell 1 per cent to $74.66.

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