Government food price claims baffle Argentines

Associated Press
A woman walks past a supermarket with a sign advertising discounts on meat in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013.  The sign advertises 1 kg of pork for 47 pesos, and 2 kg of ground beef for 50 pesos. The nation's currency's official rate is 4.96 pesos per 1 US dollar, and the black market rate is about 7.50 pesos per 1 US dollar.  (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Six pesos a day. That's all it takes to eat in Argentina, at least according to the government.

But on the streets of the capital, 6 pesos doesn't stretch beyond a pack of chewing gum, or a cup of yoghurt, or a single "alfajor" cookie. Argentina's traditional caramel-and-chocolate treats are tasty, but don't provide what the government calls the "minimum calories and proteins needed to sustain a moderately active adult."

As the International Monetary Fund moved closer Thursday to sanctioning Argentina for inaccurate inflation data, The Associated Press checked prices in Buenos Aires, and couldn't find a can of soda for less than 8 pesos. Even a ham and cheese sandwich costs 13 pesos at a downtown kiosk. That's if you skip the lettuce and tomato. Food purchased at supermarkets is more economical of course, but even there, 6 pesos bought just one can of green peas, or a pound of raw rice — not enough for a complete and healthy diet.

"Nobody eats for 6 pesos a day," said Marta Villagra, 25, as she lifted her 5-year-old son into a garbage container on Thursday, ripping open trash bags in search of anything of value. She said she spends her days gathering cardboard to recycle, earning as much as 100 pesos a day if she's lucky. That covers a meager stew for herself and her child, for 70 pesos, and leaves little else to spare.

The official inflation rate is based in large part on what the national statistics service says is the total cost of 27 items in a basic food basket — a measure of the bare minimum that an extremely poor person needs to consume. Monday's update said that a monthly basket for an indigent family of four cost 719 pesos in December. That works out to 5.99 pesos per day, per person.

The IMF has lost patience with these numbers after urging Argentina for years to improve this consumer price index, which lost credibility in 2007 after President Cristina Fernandez's husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, replaced career statisticians with political appointees. The new methodology, which has kept official yearly inflation to about 10 percent ever since, has not been fully explained, even as consumers complain about soaring costs of beef and other staples.

IMF experts and Argentine economists have spent months working privately with government officials to recommend very detailed ways to get accurate numbers again, but the government has yet to adopt them.

The IMF is now on the 12th step of a 15-point process for flagging Argentina with what IMF Director Christine Lagarde called "the red card" for countries that don't follow the rules. On Thursday, she announced that a board meeting will be held Feb. 1 to consider whether to censure Argentina and eventually suspend its voting rights and membership in the world body.

Even close government allies have given up defending the official statistics service, known as INDEC, which announced Monday that Argentina's annual inflation was just 10.8 percent in 2012. Private economists have estimated that Argentina's inflation was actually 26 percent or more, making it the worst in all of Latin America. A key indicator: Unions that have been key to Fernandez's hold on power are pushing for pay raises of 25 percent or more this year, despite a government-announced ceiling of 20 percent.

The low official inflation numbers have historically enabled the government to keep pay raises and consumer prices from going even higher, and shave millions from the payments it makes on inflation-linked bonds.

The official data reflects a wider effort by the government to control many aspects of the Argentine economy, subsidizing major industries, fixing prices and controlling currency exchanges to the point that it's almost impossible now to legally trade pesos for dollars.

Officially, the U.S. dollar that generations of Argentines have sought as a refuge from their roller-coaster economy can now be bought for 4.96 pesos, but only with prior approval from the tax agency and the central bank.

In practice, the ever-changing requirements for these approvals have made legal dollar purchases all but impossible and have fostered an illegal black market for what Argentines call the "blue dollar," which has soared this week to 7.54. At that rate, anyone who illegally trades pesos for dollars loses half their official value.

Central Bank Chief Mercedes Marco del Pont recently reiterated the government's position, dismissing the parallel currency market as tiny in comparison to the overall economy. "It's marginal and doesn't impact the functioning of the currency market," she said in a television interview Saturday with Argentina's leading C5N channel. "It should not affect how prices are determined."

But a number of economists say that because Argentines lack confidence in official data, the "blue dollar" is doing exactly that, becoming one of the nation's most closely watched indicators of consumer confidence, and as such influencing prices for everything from food to real estate.

"The blue dollar is reflecting the inflation that people feel in their pockets," said Argentine economist Enrique Dentice at the Universidad de San Martin. "It's what people expect to be the rate of devaluation."

Argentina's leading media companies and web sites track the illegal trading of this "blue dollar" by the minute, and as with the INDEC, their methodologies are not transparent. Dentice suspects the influence of major exporters, including Argentina's all-important soy producers, who must soon sell their harvest, and whose dollar profits jump every time the peso drops.

They're preying on the Argentine psyche, says Dentice, who maintains that the economy is stronger than many people think.

"It's psychological," he said, citing the many crashes that have fundamentally shaken the Argentines' faith in economic progress.

"When you have the memory we have, of generations that always end up doing badly, it's difficult to escape from it," he said. "We have this ancestral memory. We expect to be saved by the dollar."

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Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.

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