Argentina's price spiral: 'down' to 80% last year but still defiant

When Monitor photographer Norman Matheny and I left Argentina in late May 1978, he gave me the 9,650 Argentine pesos remaining in his pocket. They were then worth more than $30.

But when I got around to using them this past month, less than three years later, their value had dropped so drastically they were almost worthless -- less than $4.

The reason: Argentina's continuing inflationary spiral, which for six years has soared at least 100 percent annually, cutting the value of the peso in relation to the dollar month by month.

By an irony of economics, however, the Argentine peso is still overvalued in relation to the dollar -- and this makes Argentina one of most expensive nations in the world.

For those using dollars, this is especially true.

A United States greenback exchanges for about 2,300 Argentine pesos at the moment. That is barely enough to buy a newspaper here and covers only about half the cost of a soft drink.

A simple meal in a very modest restaurant will easily come to the Argentine equivalent of $25. There was a time, just a few years back, when the same meal -- for two people, not for just one person -- would not have been more than a total of $5.

Or stop in at the Argentine equivalent of McDonald's and get a "cheburger," together with either a soft drink or a glass of milk, and the cost comes to $7.

A four-day stay in a Buenos Aires hotel cost 1,276,260 Argentine pesos. But wait, when the cashier mentioned the total, he referred to it as 1,276 million -- or 1,275,260,000 Argentine pesos. One billion pesos!

He was referring, however, to the "old pesos" that had been in circulation during an earlier inflationary spiral and were supersided by the "new pesos," which made the hotel bill in the millions, not the billions, of Argentine pesos.

Anyway you figure it, the hotel cost roughly $600.

If this whole inflationary spiral is difficult for the visitor, it must be even harder on the Argentine?

Right and wrong.

Many Argentines, perhaps the majority, are grumbling about the impossibility of making ends meet. Pay scales have not kept up universally with the inflationary spiral.Many hold two or three jobs. Argentines, accustomed to low-cost beef which have made them the world's largest per capita consumers of meat, are now eating less of it as a result of the high cost.

But that high cost is a big boost to the exporters of meat. And they, along with their fellow upper-middle-class Argentines, are benefiting from the inflation and the high cost of Argentine goods -- and they do not seem to mind the prices.

In fact, with the overvalued peso and the inflationary spiral, many fortunes are being made. And many Argentines are spending some of this money abroad.

Hotel rooms in Brazil -- in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Salvador, or just about anywhere else -- are at a premium these days because vacationing Argentines have filled the hotels to overflowing. The same is true to some extent in Miami and New York.

The overvalued peso makes travel out of the country a bargain. And the casas de cambio, the exchange houses, on Avenida Corrientes and Calle San Martin here do a mammoth business in buying and selling dollars.

Is there any way to unscramble this runaway inflation and to bring some order out of the chaos? The present economy minister, Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, has tried through his five years in office to stabilize things. He has brought the inflation spiral down from the dizzy 1,00 percent level of 1976 to a mere 80 percent in 1980.

To do better, he would have had to cut the supply of money more drastically than he did -- and this was politically unpopular. So inflation, although curtailed, continues.

Moreover, the problems of rationalizing an economy that has been chaotic for a generation proved more than Mr. Martinez de Hoz could accomplish. Under severe criticism from many Argentine businessmen and from countless more Argentine consumers, he will be replaced by Lorenzo Sigaut when Gen. Roberto Eduardo Viola takes over the presidency from Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla next month.

That will not in itself change anything -- but economic observers believe that if Mr. Sigaut can continue the Martinez de Hoz effort to develop a free market economy, allowing the peso to go up and down as it will, and forcing Argentine industry to modernize, some slowdown in inflation may eventually result. Others disagree and urge immediate controls on prices and wages.

But for the immediate future, the general feeling here is that the crazy-quilt pattern of inflation and its peculiar Argentine approach will continue.

And that "cheburger" could well go to $10 before too long.

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