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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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Hong Kong dropped from economic freedom index after crackdown

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Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underlining growing concerns over Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial centre after it introduced a national security law last year.

The announcement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank, came as the majority of a group of 47 pro-democracy politicians were refused bail in a case that critics say shows the rapid decline of civic freedoms in the city.

The Heritage Foundation also dropped the Chinese special autonomous region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony, from the rankings.

The foundation in recent years has been aligned with the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

“No doubt both Hong Kong and Macau . . . enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China,” the Heritage Foundation said. “But developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.

The measures are part of a clampdown on civil and political freedoms guaranteed to the city for 50 years following its handover from the UK to China in 1997. Authorities are targeting anyone viewed as disloyal to the Chinese government in politics, education and the media.

The Hong Kong government has long taken pride in studies showing its economy to be one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business haven given its low tax rates and open port.

The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its “Index of Economic Freedom” with Singapore, toppling it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still included the territory in the rankings in second place.

The Hong Kong government said it was ‘dismayed’ by the Heritage Foundation’s decision and said it was “politically biased”.

The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists has been seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand pressure from Beijing.

Authorities charged the group with subversion, alleging they aimed to topple the government by staging an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Subversion is punishable with up to life imprisonment under the national security law.

The bail hearings, presided over by a judge appointed to oversee national security cases, entered their fourth day on Thursday.

Victor So, the judge overseeing the case, only granted bail to 15 out of 47 defendants under harsh conditions, but the prosecution immediately appealed the ruling, returning them to custody until the appeal hearing takes place. 

On top of the usual bail conditions, the court ordered the defendants to not participate in elections or make any public political statements.

Sessions have often stretched late into the evening, including one that continued until 3am before the defendants were hauled back before the court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed inside the courtroom and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.

As they exited the court, some defendants shouted: “Political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers will not die!”

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of the defendants was “most unsatisfactory”. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted “makes a farce of procedural fairness”.

Some of the defendants have faced multiple trials simultaneously and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.

The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday their clients had not bathed in three days, forcing the judge to delay the hearing to allow them to wash.

Hong Kong has tight restrictions on reporting the substance of bail hearings.

Hundreds of supporters have queued each day in an attempt to watch the proceedings in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, risking prosecution under the security law.



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Pakistan’s finance minister ousted in surprise defeat for Imran Khan

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Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan suffered a major political setback on Wednesday, when his finance minister was defeated in a contest for a seat in the country’s senate.

Khan must now appoint a successor to the cabinet post by June 11 under Pakistani law. The surprise defeat of finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a respected economist and former world bank official who led the country’s negotiations with the IMF for a $6bn loan, comes amid an escalating campaign by main opposition parties to have the prime minister removed from office.

Elected officials vote to fill vacated seats in the senate every three years. Following the result, the government announced it would “take a vote of confidence in parliament” to prove that the prime minister retained a majority of support.

Business leaders have warned that Shaikh’s departure creates uncertainty over the future of Pakistan’s fiscal policies as the country battles the pandemic’s fallout on the economy.

“Right now, it was essential to give a message of confidence to a range of stake holders within and outside Pakistan on the state of our economy. Now, people will be left asking questions,” the president of a private Pakistani bank told the Financial Times.

An 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has accused Khan of using the powerful military to tip the 2018 election result in his favour — which leaders from the prime minister’s party have denied — and for failing to revive the moribund economy.

The PDM has announced a March 26 deadline for Khan to step down or face widespread opposition protests.

Though some opposition leaders have said they plan to follow up Wednesday’s defeat with a vote of no confidence against Khan, analysts said it was too early to predict his downfall ahead of the end of his five-year term in 2023.

“It’s a major upset for Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Justice Party),” said Huma Baqai, a political commentator at the University of Karachi. “The government from hereon will face further pressure as the opposition continues to step up its campaign.”

The vote count suggested a break in Khan’s PTI party, with as many as 16 party members either voting for the finance minister’s opponent, former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, or spoiling their ballots.

Shaikh’s defeat “will not automatically lead to the prime minister’s downfall. Some PTI members clearly changed sides [for this vote]. But it will be much harder for them to agree to removing the prime minister,” an opposition leader told the FT.

Faisal Javed, a PTI leader, claimed some representatives had been bribed by the opposition. “There has been a major corruption. There has been horse-trading. People have been sold,” he told the local ARY news channel on Wednesday. Opposition leaders have denied this.

The electoral college for the senate consists of members from legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as the lower house of parliament in Islamabad known as the national assembly.



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Australia’s treasurer warns global stimulus threatens financial stability

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Australia has warned that unprecedented global stimulus efforts during the coronavirus pandemic are creating financial stability risks that will only intensify when interest rates inevitably rise.

Canberra has also defended tough new foreign investment rules that have led to a collapse in Chinese investment, arguing the number of proposed deals motivated by strategic, rather than purely commercial gain, was increasing.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, said the Pacific nation was in a strong economic position as its net debt to gross domestic product was about half that of other advanced economies, even as it begins unwinding fiscal stimulus.

“There is no doubt elevated debt levels will create challenges for many countries. While global interest rates are low those debt levels can be serviceable — but there will be a time when the monetary policy settings change,” he told the Financial Times.

Frydenberg’s comments on the risks posed by global stimulus followed a similar warning delivered last week by Peter Costello, a close political ally and former Australia treasurer.

Australia will be among the first advanced economies to taper off Covid-19 fiscal stimulus with the closure of its A$90bn (US$70bn) JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme this month.

Canberra has argued that the recovery is already under way, citing a fall in unemployment to 6.4 per cent in January and a 3.3 per cent economic expansion in the three months to September last year.

Frydenberg, who counts Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan among his role models, said the government’s A$250bn stimulus was required to stabilise the economy during the pandemic. But he said JobKeeper, which supported 3.6m workers at its peak, was no longer needed as the recovery could be supported by tax cuts, which were announced last year.

Asked if he thought the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan were still relevant, he said: “[Reagan and Thatcher] achieved a lot when they were in office and they were committed to lower taxes. They were committed to cutting regulation and that’s certainly what I’ve been committed to as well.”

But trade unions and businesses that are still suffering as a result of border closures and restrictions, particularly in the tourism and entertainment sectors, have warned that the scheme’s closure will dent the economy.

“JobKeeper should be extended for those businesses that are still affected by coronavirus. [Through] no fault of their own, they are suffering that downturn,” said Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, last week. “And we say that because that will save jobs.”

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, is a rising star in the country’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister © AP

Frydenberg, who was the architect of foreign investment rules aimed at countering rising Chinese influence, said he made no apologies for putting “national interest” at the heart of Australia’s investment policies.

Chinese investment fell 61 per cent last year to A$1bn, down from A$2.6bn in 2019 and a peak in 2016 of A$16.5bn, data showed. Frydenberg was instrumental in blocking two potential deals: China Mengniu’s A$600m bid for Japan-owned Lion Dairy and China State Construction Engineering Corp’s A$300m bid for Probuild, a South Africa-owned construction company.

“We absolutely reserve the right to make decisions around foreign investment based on national interest and having put in place an explicit national security test allows us to do that,” he said.

“Increasingly we’ve seen foreign investment proposals that have been motivated not by purely commercial gains but more strategic ones. When those foreign investment proposals potentially compromise the national interest, then we reserve the right to say no.”

Frydenberg said Australia was not alone in tightening its rules, noting that other countries shared Canberra’s views on national sovereignty and foreign investment.

“Obviously we have had some challenges with China,” he said when asked about Beijing’s imposition of trade sanctions on a range of Australia’s exports following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Frydenberg insisted that Australian ministers were prepared to sit down with their Chinese counterparts to discuss the bilateral relationship but only on a “no conditions attached” basis.

“It is a mutually beneficial trading relationship — we supply the bulk of their iron ore and that iron ore has helped underpin their economic growth,” he said.

Frydenberg is a rising star in Australia’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister.

Last week, he shot to global attention following several days of negotiation with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg over the social media company’s decision to block news on its platforms in Australia in response to a law forcing it to pay news publishers.

On Friday, Facebook “refriended Australia” and returned news to its Australian platform following amendments that may make it easier for the company to avoid the toughest elements of the law.

“Trying to negotiate with these guys is a bit like playing chess against a chess master,” said Frydenberg, who joked that he spoke to Zuckerberg more than his own wife last week.

“The reality is they are massive companies with huge balance sheets and global reach. If this was easy other countries would have done it [made Big Tech pay for news] long ago.” 



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