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The invisible hand | 7th July 2014

Why Argentina needs free trade more than ever  |  There is little doubt that Argentina needs a miracle, or at least a helping hand. No, this is not another reference to football: just a simple statement of fact.

It has until the 30th July to find USD 1.3bn in order to avoid default. Argentina’s trade performance has suffered as a result of poor economic and trade tariff management since 2011. Trade declined in 2012 by over 4% and while it grew in 2013 and is expected to return to growth of around 7% this year, this will only take it back to the levels of exports last seen in the middle of 2011. Policy makers have focused instead on attracting inward investment to develop the large shale gas reserves, taking their eye of the trade ball. Yet even this policy has stalled: Delta Economics is forecasting that Foreign Direct Investment levels will increase in 2014 but this will again only take them just above the 2011 levels. Put simply: if Argentina is to stave off the permanent threat of default and encourage enduring FDI, it will have to bring the invisible hand back into its trade markets.

At first glance, it does not appear that trade matters unduly to the Argentinian economy. It still runs a trade surplus, although not as substantial as it was and this is reflected in its positive terms of trade (the value of exports in relation to the price of imports). Yet there appears to be very little correlation (-0.37) between its terms of trade and the value of the Argentinian Peso (ARS), as illustrated in Figure 1.

 

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Figure 1  |  Argentina’s terms of trade vs ARS per USD, Last Price Monthly, June 2001-June 2014

Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2014, Bloomberg

 

This matters in so far as countries with high correlations between trade and their currency values are less prone to speculative attacks on their currency. The Peso has weakened by around 50% since the financial crisis: the last time the deterioration in its value was as substantial, Argentina was gripped by its last sovereign debt crisis. While the decline in value has been over a longer period of time, it does suggest that traders are speculating against Argentina being able to re-pay its debt.

If this is the case, then it is more than worrying. Argentina needs to default on its debt a bit like its football team needs the Netherlands to score 2 goals in the first fifteen minutes of the game on Wednesday. If it defaults, then it will find it very difficult to raise the external capital/inward investment that it needs to begin the process of extracting shale gas. But as Figure 2 shows, Argentina is no longer a net exporter of oil and gas, so, in order to restore its self-sufficiency urgently needs this inward investment.

 

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Figure 2  |  Value of Argentina’s oil and gas trade (USDm) versus ARS per USD, Last Price Monthly, June 2001-June 2014

Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2014, Bloomberg

 

The Peso is barely correlated with oil and gas exports (-0.42), although it is correlated with its imports (0.72) suggesting that as the currency weakens (values are in Peso per USD), it is more likely to import oil which is worrying because it suggests that oil imports are plugging a structural weakness in Argentina rather than a response to imported oil being proportionately cheaper. And as the correlation with exports is so weak, it reinforces the view that the currency is more closely correlated with its economic condition than with its trade position.

So what is the scale of the challenge ahead? What does the Argentinian government need to do if it is indeed to create substantial economic growth through the inward-investment associated with shale gas production? Figure 3 presents the specific six-digit subsectors within natural gas that represent shale.

 

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Figure 3  |  Value of Argentina’s natural gas imports and exports (USDm), 2001-2026 (forecast)

Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2014

 

Other things being equal, that is, if inward investment continues at the pace we are currently seeing it and if policy and the economic climate remain unchanged, then the picture is not rosy for Argentina’s shale gas revolution. Our model suggests that imports are already outstripping exports and that trend will continue to grow over time. The chance of a trade surplus is remote, as is the chance of self-sufficiency in gas.

It is not the intention to enter a debate on shale in Argentina, still less to suggest that this is the only way out of the current crisis. Instead, just take a look at where policy really can have an influence: trade. Argentina’s openness, in other words its trade as a proportion of GDP has grown from just under 30% in 2001 to over 60% now. The economy is more dependent on trade as a result since it is so important in relation to GDP.

Yet oil and gas is not the sector, arguably, where it should be focusing in the short term. There are two reasons for this. First, the normalised revealed comparative advantage of oil and gas has deteriorated from a position where it was competitive in 2001 (0.39) to a position where it is uncompetitive now (-0.51). We are expecting its position to deteriorate still further to -0.60 by 2020. In contrast, Automotives were uncompetitive in 2001 (-0.12) but are competitive now (0.32) and will be more so by 2020 (0.38).

Second, there appears to be a much stronger correlation between automotive trade and the value of the currency suggesting that some of the speculation may dissipate if the manufacturing side of the economy can be allowed to flourish as Figure 4 shows.

 

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Figure 4  |  Value of Argentina’s automotive exports overall and to Brazil (USDm) vs ARS per USD, June 2001-June 2014

Source  |  DeltaMetrics 2014, Bloomberg

 

If Argentina can grow its manufacturing sector then it stands a chance of creating real export-led growth, particularly if it focuses on the regional automotive supply chain to Brazil since the correlation between it and its currency is particularly high for that trade route. As the currency has weakened, this has strengthened the position of Argentina’s automotive sector in relation to Brazil and has provided a platform for growth.

This is where policy makers should focus to address the challenges of growth and currency stability in the long run and to provide a clear message to markets and arguably the US Supreme Court to stave off default in the short run. Trade suffered between 2001 and 2012 when tariffs were first imposed and Argentina can in no sense afford to make this mistake again. Free trade is as key – otherwise the “hand of God” may well start to look like an Argentina own goal.