»The Daily Reckoning by Bill Borner

The dopiest group of elected officials in the world

Colonia, Uruguay

Is Scotland free? If so, we're beginning a campaign to free Maryland, about which, more anon.

In the meantime, we are down here in Uruguay giving a speech to a group of Argentine investors.

What can we tell them that they don't already know? They've seen it all.

Yesterday's paper, El Clarin, announced that the peso has dropped past the 15-to-the-dollar level for the first time. When we first came to Argentina - it must have been about 2005 - we recall getting only 5 pesos per dollar.

"No one knows what the real inflation level is," says a friend. "Most think it is around 40%."

Based on that alone it should be pretty obvious why the peso is dropping. That is, it is obvious to everyone but Argentine's Minister of the Economy, Axel Kicillof.

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In loose translation from the Clarin:

    Kicillof accused the US of having pushed the peso down. "Oddly, [US Ambassador] Sullivan used the word 'default' [to describe Argentina's failure to make the required ayment on its foreign debt] when everyone knows it was selective...and then the dollar goes up and gives the impression of a general panic."

    "Contrary to the opinion of the market," Kicillof continued, "there is no economic or financial reason for the peso to trade at 15 to the dollar."
Well, that pretty much settles it for us!

Meanwhile, over on page 10, the Argentine legislature is giving our US Congress a run for its money as the dopiest group of elected officials in the world. They just voted a law that will give the government the power to control the economy more closely. (It's done such a swell job so far!) Yes, among other things, the law gives the government authority to use "whatever method necessary" to set "maximum and minimum prices."

Hey...you're probably thinking: what a novel and clever way to stop prices from rising; simply set prices yourself. Why didn't anyone think of that before?

Of course, they did. Many times. And every time, it was a disaster. Set prices too low and you soon get shortages. Set them too high and your shelves groan with unsold merchandise. It should be obvious to everyone by now that only Mr. Market knows the proper, market clearing price.

Argentina is an adventure. Even for the Argentines. We admire them greatly for their willingness to experiment with policies that others have already tried and already discovered that they don't work. They are willing to have another go at it; maybe they're just back-testing.

On the pampas, inflation, taxes and regulations seem as though they were designed intentionally to hinder economic growth. Anyone who is running a business has to find ways to cope. Recently, we couldn't get parts for our tractors...and couldn't get new tires...because of restrictions on imports. We tried to send things from the United States, but they got hung up in customs. And trying to keep track of income and expenses is a nightmare.

Recently, we spent some time with an accountant, trying to make sense of it. He explained that the typical businessman has 4 sets of books.

"One is for what really happens...with some transactions in 'white' - I mean, at official rates...and some transactions in 'black,' which we don't report. It also includes our exchanges of dollars to pesos, some officially, at the bank, and others let's say, unofficially, on the street.

"Another one shows the commercial transactions in black and white, but all of the exchanges from dollars to pesos at the official rate.

"And then, you usually want to keep track of only the commercial transactions in white...we don't show the money we made in black...or the payments we made in black. But you can see the exchanges of money, from dollars to pesos, in black and white, as we did them.

"And of course, we have the accounts that we report to the government. All the transactions in 'white' only with our dollar/peso conversions at the official rate. This one is pure fantasy, of course."

Our head was swimming. You don't declare any of the transactions that were in cash?" we asked.

"No...we have no paperwork to back them up."

"Why not just issue purchase orders and receipts?"

"Oh, the counterparty wouldn't accept them...he'd have to explain where he got the money."

"Well...where did he get the money?"

"It's black money...he probably sold something to someone else...who didn't want a receipt either."

"Well, then, what do you do with this black money?"

"We use it to pay our workers. Or buy things. Anything. But we also have to use white money."

"Why? It looks like the whole economy operates on black money."

"No, no...you need white money too. The white money is how Kiciloff thinks the economy operates. We need to show him enough activity in white so he won't come looking for the black."

Again, our admiration for the Argentine businessman who is able to deal with all these complications is boundless.

Later, we were sitting at the dinner table with the capataz [the ranch foreman].

"It doesn't matter who wins the election," he said. "Because Argentina's problems are so profound...no one will be able to solve them."

"No, no ..." we told him. "I could solve all the problems in a couple of weeks. I would just eliminate all the laws and regulations that keep people from being able to work. Get rid of all trade and financial restrictions. Abolish all forms of government assistance and subsidies. And back the peso with gold."

The capataz doesn't know much about economics. But he knows a dreamer when he sees one.

"Easier said than done," was his final comment.

On Monday: An Homage to Poverty.

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