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ECONOMY | 20-11-2023 00:37

Argentina investors cheer Milei victory, brace for peso sell-off

Investors cheered libertarian economist Javier Milei’s bigger-than-expected win in Sunday’s presidential vote and his pledge to usher in a radical remake of South America’s second-largest economy.

Argentina investors cheered libertarian economist Javier Milei’s bigger-than-expected win in Sunday’s presidential vote and his pledges to usher in a radical remake of South America’s second-largest economy.

Overseas bonds, currently trading below 30 cents on the dollar, looked poised to edge higher as traders weigh the maverick outsider’s chances of turning around policies that have the country headed to its sixth recession in a decade with 140 percent inflation.

“This is the opportunity for a new beginning,” said Jorge Piedrahita, founder of Gear Capital Management in New York.

The peso is set to weaken in parallel markets used to skirt currency controls, reflecting Milei’s plan to replace it with the dollar. On Sunday, it fell to about 1,000 per dollar on local cryptocurrency exchanges. That was an eight percent decline from Friday’s price of about 920 per dollar. Local markets are closed Monday for a national holiday.

Milei’s victory caps a bombastic campaign that promised radical fixes to what he described as decades of misguided government policies. He pledged to slash public spending and shut down the Central Bank in a bid to tame inflation and shore up fiscal accounts, policies that may be a boon to bond investors who already expect another default is coming.

In his victory speech Sunday night, Milei shied away from mentioning those radical fixes, in favor of a more subdued tone that highlighted the critical condition of the economy. 

“Today is the beginning of the end of Argentina’s decadence,” he said. “We’ll start doing things that history has shown works, and within 35 years, we’ll return to being a world power.”

During a second speech to supporters outside his campaign headquarters, Milei shouted his signature slogan “Long live freedom, dammit!” Still, he dialed back his rhetoric on closing the Central Bank, mentioning the need to “fix its problems” instead.

With 98 percent of votes counted, Milei won nearly 56 percent support, compared with 44 percent for Economy Minister Sergio Massa, who represented continuity with the existing Peronist government. Polls had showed Milei with just a slight edge in the run-up to the election, so there was a feeling among investors that the strong mandate might make it easier to push through his policies.

“Milei’s lead was much larger than expected,” said Juan Manuel Pazos, the chief economist at Buenos Aires-based brokerage TPCG. “That should be positive for the price action.”

While Milei gained attention for quirks that were atypical for a potential head of state — his unusual hairdo, love of his cloned dogs and a penchant for campaigning with a chainsaw — he won fans among investors for his promise to usher in a business friendly era for Argentina. Economic growth is elusive, the peso has lost more than 90 percent of its value in four years, and around 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

“It’s a vote in favour of reforms, but with tremendous execution risks,” said Patrick Esteruelas, the head of research at Emso Asset Management. “The upside will be capped by scepticism over whether he can politically survive an adjustment with limited support in Congress.”

Milei’s La Libertad Avanza party controls only a handful of seats in congress, and policies like dollarisation would be an incredibly complex undertaking even with broad political support. Slashing government outlays will be a burden on Argentina’s poorest citizens. 

Still, some investors think Milei is the best shot at salvaging the economy after years of market pain. The nation’s overseas bonds handed investors losses of more than 40 percent since they were restructured in 2020, among the worst showings in emerging markets.

“The question is more about Milei’s ability to get things done,” said Diego Ferro, founder of M2M capital in New York. “And that is where I think there’s still a big question mark. But the near-term prognosis should be higher bond prices.”

by Kevin Simauchi, Giovanna Bellotti Azevedo & Scott Squires, Bloomberg

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