Did Argentina stumble over China on its way to the IMF?

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Luis “Toto” Caputo was out Tuesday morning as head of Argentina’s Central Bank, the BCRA. The move was surprising, coming as it did in the middle of President Mauricio Macri’s trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. It was also worrisome, as it came during the sensitive negotiating of a change in the terms — increasing the size and front-loading the payments — of the now $57b, three-year Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) agreed to with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Guido Sanderlis, deputy to the Minster of Finance, took over at BCRA.

It’s a big stumble for Argentina and a sharp fall for Caputo, who as finance minister almost exactly a year ago famously said: “I’m convinced Argentina will be the star of emerging markets for the next 20 years. I don’t mean to be cocky, but it’s very evident.”

Caputo had threatened to leave as negotiations with the IMF came to a head, as he wanted more funds than the IMF was comfortable with to support the peso, which has declined over 50% this year. Ultimately, Macri sacrificed Caputo to play nice with the IMF, and Sanderlis is expected to tow the government line.

Negotiations between Argentina and the IMF were more difficult than expected in part due to China. But for once US President and China-hawk Donald Trump was not the stumbling block:

"The negotiations were much tougher than expected, despite overwhelming support of the administration of Donald Trump, which considers supporting Macri strategic. France, Holland and Germany maintain a very hard line against Macri's administration, due to certain business deals with China."

What business deals? While the internal discussions of the IMF are under wraps, media in Argentina point to the renegotiated deal on the Atucha nuclear plants, the acquisition of stakes in lithium mines by Chinese companies, the Neuquen space station, and the swap line between the BCRA and China’s central bank, the PBoC.

Argentina is rumored to be expanding its swap line with China by $9b (instead of the original $5b), bringing it to a total of $20b. The BCRA was supposed to have drawn $3b of those funds in Dec 2015, a week after the new Macri government was inaugurated to stabilize the peso against dollar at that time, in the wake of liberalizing the exchange rate.  Negotiations were put on hold for almost three months in the wake of the departure of Caputo’s predecessor, Federico Sturzenegger. While the agreement was thought to be “imminent,” the unexpected transition may lead to another pause at a time when the BCRA is trying to rally market sentiment.

With the departure of Caputo and Sturzenegger, only Ernesto Bosch, founding President of the BCRA, has served out a full term. We wish Sanderlis better luck.

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