June 6, 2011
If you are ever feeling a little rough and could do with banishing the lingering echoes of the night before, a shave by a barber is your only man. Last week, deep in the Caballito district of Buenos Aires, I put my life in the hands of an octogenarian barber in a fantastically antiquated snip-joint called La Epocha.
There is something vaguely terrifying about a man with a blade two millimetres from your neck, even if this man has shaved the beard of Diego Maradona.
The photo above the ancient, freckled mirrors shows Maradona laughing as the barber, Claudio, lathers him up, before applying the knife.
If this carry-on was good enough for Maradona, it has to be good enough for mere mortals, so it was up with me onto the chair. Within moments, terror switched to comfort as the soporific effect of the hot towels took hold and Claudio took charge. Reassured by his grandfatherly smile, I practically dozed as he set to work.
I wondered how much this grandad had seen in his life and what his Italian father might have expected when he, like millions of other emigrants, arrived in Argentina to start a new life in the New World. Many of those immigrants were Irish and, today, their descendants are all over Argentina.
One of these Irish Argentinians is Patricia O’Shea, the owner of the wonderful Home hotel in the city’s hip Palermo district. Ten years ago, just before Argentina’s default and devaluation of its currency in 2001, she was working as a waitress in Tante ZoÃ©’s in Temple Bar, having emigrated from Argentina to Ireland in the late 1980s.
She came back to Argentina after the default ,with the money she had earned in Ireland. She explained tome that, after the default and the devaluation, it made sense to invest in Argentina again because the country was competitive.
The money that had left the country before the default – because it expected a default – came back. The price of all assets fell dramatically, new money gushed into the country and the economy grew rapidly – it has grown in each of the last ten years since the default on 2001.
Now, before you think I am suggesting that we use Argentina as an economic model, snap out of it – Argentina is corrupt and it is extremely difficult to do business in.
But the point is that the default and devaluation of the currency didn’t cause the economy to get worse. It caused the economy to recover because people like O’Shea invested after the default, not before it.
There is life after default; in fact there is vibrant life. If we walked away from the bank debts in Ireland – debts that are not ours to pay – but continued to pay our sovereign debt, basic economics tells you that the economy would be stronger, not weaker; the balance sheet more robust; money that had left the country would come flooding back.
Having watched the EU again deal with Greece last week by preaching the medicine of no real debt restructuring – more debt and more austerity – it seems the lessons of Argentina from 1998-2002 have been lost on everyone.
We in Ireland are making exactly the same mistakes as the Argentinians made back then. During this period, I was working for an investment bank investing in what are known as emerging markets, so I spent a lot of time watching events in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil – and the parallels with Ireland today are disturbing.
After the Russian and Asian crises of 1997-98,most of the emerging world briefly, yet dramatically, devalued their currencies and restructured their debts in order to recover.
But Argentina did not. It was the star pupil of the IMF that had been set against debt restructuring and devaluation. In short, Argentina did everything the IMF told it to do.
Instead of defaulting and devaluing, Argentina opted for a hard currency peg – one-for-one convertibility with the US dollar – and austerity. The result, of course, was a recession.
Yet, as unemployment rose and retail sales fell, from 1998 to 2001, the IMF constantly praised Argentina for its fortitude and for staying the course, taking the medicine and knuckling down.
This is precisely what is happening in Ireland.
The failed IMF blueprint from Argentina is being deployed again here by the so-called ‘troika’ of the IMF, EU and ECB. And it will end in the same mess.
To cut a long story short, the world looked at Argentina and concluded that the people couldn’t stomach much more of this austerity and couldn’t pay the debts that had been incurred in the good times, because the policy of austerity was making the economy shrink. In contrast, just across the border, Brazil was rocking after its devaluation. So, as Argentinian risk rose, interest rates rose.
Argentina was being punished for being a star IMF pupil, but Brazil was being rewarded for being – in the IMF’s eyes at least – a delinquent! This is exactly what is happening in Ireland, Greece and Portugal now- we are being punished for doing everything that is asked of us. In contrast, Iceland is recovering, after having given the bankers the two fingers.
In the end, Argentina defaulted on its sovereign debts, not because it wanted to, but because it had to. It is sobering to think that Argentina did everything the IMF wanted it to do and, in the end, its debt to GDP ratio was only 51 per cent.
We are doing everything the troika is telling us, but our debts are at least twice that.
Argentina not only defaulted, it broke the convertibility with the dollar – and the currency collapsed. People with assets lost out because asset prices fell. People with savings lost because their savings, which had been equivalent to dollars, were now in the devalued peso. People with debts gained because their previous dollar debts were cancelled and turned into peso debts.
In fact, this is exactly the opposite of what happened here when we joined the euro.
When that happened, people who had savings in the weaker currency, the punt – which had devalued five times in its existence – suddenly got these savings revalued into a much harder currency, the euro. So savers in Ireland got a huge subsidy by joining the euro, while debtors got hammered.
So what happened in Argentina?
As prices fell, new money came back into the country. O’Shea, for example, left Dublin and returned to Buenos Aires in 2003 with her own and some Irish investors’ money and opened Home. She would never have done that before the default cleared the air.
The place is booming. It opened in 2005 and, by 2007, the Â¡ber-hip Wallpaper magazine rewarded Home with the ‘best new hotel in the world’ award.
This is real wealth, created by the talents of real people. This talent, entrepreneurial drive and creative vision was liberated after the default and the devaluation. It had been strangled by the austerity that went before.
So there is life after default; in fact, defaulting makes good business sense. This is why we have a concept called bankruptcy, because it is good business to close what is bust and reopen anew. It’s called capitalism.
It is what you do after the crisis that is important. It is also crucial to understand cause and effect. In recent days, people have said that the default would bankrupt the Irish banks.
This is not true. What bankrupted the Irish banks is not defaulting on debt, but the previous reckless lending.
The default is not the cause of the problem, it is the consequence of the problem.
As I left Claudio and La Epocha, clean shaven and revitalised, it struck me that Argentina might wobble again soon, as it has allowed inflation to take off. But we know how to tame inflation. With too much activity, tighten money conditions, cut spending and the economy will cool down.
What caused Argentina’s crisis in 2001 was not inflation, but deflation. Similarly, today, Ireland’s problem is also not inflation, but deflation – no activity, no growth, high unemployment and too much debt. History tells us there is only one way out of this. Debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid.
The crisis comes suddenly, it passes, there are winners and losers, and we start again.
David McWilliams hosts the Dalkey Book Festival from June 17-19.