Confucius has been mistranslated for 2500 years. The master didn’t really say, “When prosperity comes, do not use all of it.” The correct translation is, “Never buy a second home.” Either way, his wisdom has been forgotten by the modern world. People mortgage their prosperity a week before it arrives while the ranks of the second homeless decline daily. The simple, spiritual way of life stressed by Confucius—that is, staying at your friends’ vacation homes instead—has fallen out of favor in these secular times.
Your correspondent just spent ten days in Buenos Aires. The gushy guide books nail it: The city is indeed the Paris of South America. With its beautiful people, sensuous music, Belle Époque buildings, wide boulevards and parks, its opera house, museums, cafés and restaurants by the hundreds, Buenos Aires is—in a word—seductive.
And its prices are amazing. Food and drink are half of what they are here. A first-run movie that costs $11 a ticket in San Francisco and $20 in London is just $4 at the Bullrich Mall, the swankiest shopping center in Buenos Aires. If one is not a disciple of Confucius, it may be all too tempting to buy a second home in the country with the world’s finest beef and the most psychologists per capita.
This temptation calls to mind another famous saying of Confucius: “Currency risk is not for amateurs.” Had you purchased your Argentine dream home three months ago, it would be worth twenty percent less today.
This should have come as a surprise to no one. Argentina has been ground zero for financial chaos for a hundred years and world-class economists have frittered away their careers trying to explain why a country with so many resources—everything from fertile plains to a well-educated population—is constantly bleeding on insolvency’s knife edge. Rather than stumble over an explanation of the parallel universe of Argentine economics, we will content ourselves with a description of a simple visit.
Before you even board the southbound plane, you learn Argentina is the land of cash, and not just any cash, but greenbacks. Everyone advises you to leave your credit cards at home and take a fistful of dollars instead. Upon arrival, you notice there are no lines at the currency exchange offices. The dusty offices seldom have clerks either because no one—not even the Monastic nuns visiting the birthplace of Pope Francis (the guy is big in Argentina)—trades money legally.
The official exchange rate during my visit was 8 pesos to the dollar, while the black market rate was 12.5. This was not exactly a secret. The illegal rate is so widely accepted that, like the weather, it is published daily in Argentina’s major newspapers. And even Helen Keller could find a black marketeer dying to swap pesos for her dollars. In fact, she would trip over one every fifty feet on Calle Florida, a walking street for tourists. Or you could go on-line for her and find a currency exchange service that would deliver cash to her door.
If you and Helen put your $200-a-night hotel room on your Visa card, it would cost you $200. But if you traded your dollars on the black market—about as easy as asking for directions—and then paid in pesos, your room would cost just $125. And this is true for everything else you can buy in Argentina. With such a staggering discount, you find yourself—like a shivering junkie—desperate to exchange more dollars as you run low on black market pesos. Each shopkeeper and restaurateur offers you his own private exchange rate—between 10 and 12—if you will only pay him in coveted dollars.
This is a fabulous state of affairs for dollar-laden gringos, but a miserable one for the locals. Prices everywhere are taped-over, scratched-out or simply erased as stores desperately try to keep up with both inflation and the devaluation of their own currency. Importers are going out of business because they can no longer afford to buy foreign goods. Banks are paying 40 percent interest on deposits and charging 60 percent or more on loans. And credit card companies are no longer allowing repayment over time.
The two-tiered peso is an unintended—but inevitable—result of the Argentine government’s overly exuberant efforts to keep the peso artificially high. Why would it do this? Partially pride, every country wants a strong currency—it’s like getting an A on your economic report card—but it boils down to politics. And politics is easy if you follow the money. The leftist president, Cristina Kirchner, wants to be reelected to a third term and her base—salaried workers—would lose the most by a frank devaluation of the peso, their purchasing power would erode even further and faster. And Cristina’s efforts to prop up the peso (basically by selling every dollar Argentina has in its foreign currency reserve account) are working, if just a bit. The gap between the official and black market peso has narrowed slightly; today, it’s officially 7.82 pesos and unofficially 10.95 to the dollar. If you want to be a currency arbitrageur, you better hurry on down.
Don’t cry for Argentina, but don’t invest there either. If it flies, floats or is found across the border, rent it, don’t buy it.