Argentine peso takes fresh hit amid uncertainty

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Argentina's peso plummeted to a new low Monday despite government attempts to curb losses in recent weeks by hiking interest rates and shedding billions in foreign reserves.

Signs that further measures are needed from President Mauricio Macri's center-right government came as the peso dipped a further 6.16 percent as markets opened, trading at 25.20 against the dollar.

The new losses come at an ominous moment.

On Tuesday, holders of Lebac peso-denominated bonds issued by Argentina's Central Bank are allowed to demand settlement -- sparking a potential $25 billion payout.

At this rate, an informal International Monetary Fund board meeting scheduled for Friday to discuss a financial aid package can't come soon enough, after Macri last week began negotiations for a loan to stem the currency run.

An IMF spokesman announced the meeting on Monday even as the peso tumbled.

"This will be an informal meeting as part of our usual process of briefing the Board on negotiations for high access IMF programs," Gerry Rice said in a statement.

It means a decision on Buenos Aires' request is unlikely to be made this week. The amount and terms of the loan will still have to be discussed.

- Seeking funds -

Argentina is seeking a high access "stand by" financing arrangement that would provide funds above the normal loan amount, but officials have not said how much they are requesting.

Argentine media reports say the government needs at least $30 billion from the IMF, with extra support from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

As US interest rates rise, investors in recent weeks have been fleeing Argentina, driving up demand for US dollars, and driving the peso down.

Monday's drop means the currency has devalued by nearly 20 percent in the last six weeks, despite efforts by the central bank to prop up the currency, burning through more than $8 billion in reserves and hiking the benchmark interest rate to 40 percent.

Argentine economists now believe the central bank will push interest rates to as high as 50 percent to protect the peso.

After taking office in December 2015, the market-friendly Macri floated the Argentine peso, ending the strict controls in place under the government of Cristina Kirchner.

In the 1990s, the peso had been on a par with the dollar. In early 2013, it was just five pesos to the dollar.

Macri's market-friendly government has struggled to halt inflation, which soared to 25 percent in 2017.

Analysts said resorting to a dig-out from the IMF will hurt the 59-year-old's appeal to the electorate a year ahead of elections in the South American country.

The talks with the Washington-based lender come 17 years after the country last defaulted on its debt and 12 years after it cut ties with the IMF.

The loans at the time were needed after the country suffered an economic crisis in 2001 that sparked the downfall of four presidents and default on $100 billion in foreign debt.

But Argentines objected to the strict conditions imposed by the IMF in exchange for the lending.

According to pollsters CEOP, Macri has only 37 percent support among Argentines, the lowest ranking of his presidency.

A few hundred protesters took to the streets of Buenos Aires on Monday to complain about Macri's decision to ask for IMF assistance.

"We have to take into account that the collective memory feeds on the bad memories associated with the dreaded IMF," said Roberto Bacman, CEOP's director.