05 October 2007

Let them eat tomatoes

I can resign myself to be ruled by Queen Kristina of the Clenched Fist from December on, but I sincerely hope she has learned something from the embarrassing mess his husband's made and fires Alberto Fernández. For his ilk we have the word impresentable in Spanish — I don't know if there's such a term in English. Alberto Fernández is simply not somebody you want to speak for your administration. They say pets resemble their owners; if so, Fernández can be seen as Kirchner's oversensitive, rabid bulldog.

The issue is, as usual, inflation. Listen to this: according to the Chief of Cabinet, "the opposition candidates are dealing irresponsibly with the issue of inflation" because "they're trying to create inflationary expectations in order to ruin Argentinians' lives." I'd reply to that by saying that tomatoes at 15 or 16 pesos per kilo are ruining our salads (an important part of my life, at least!), but then the Master Number-Cruncher Guillermo Moreno (Secretary of Internal Commerce) would come, figures in hand, to tell me that IndeK's fair and flawless measurements show tomatoes at AR$3.99/kg, and my belief that tomato is outrageously overpriced is the fruit of a conspiracy.

Since this blog is intended for an international audience, I thought I'd make it clear. The figures released by Indec, our census/stats bureau, are not trustable. Inflation is the main one, but inflation also correlates with poverty. We now know that energy use, GDP growth, and others have been subtly tweaked as well — not by making them up, but by using different criteria for the measurement. For example, Indec decided to show electric power demand and quietly dropped power generation from publicly accessible reports. Demand is growing steadily and often surpasses the offer; generation is stagnant.

So if you hear rumours in the international media about the controversy with Argentina's census bureau, be sure that they're understated. We're in the dark regarding our figures — some are obviously false, others probably, but we don't know which and how false.

Back to inflation, it just happens that the house of cards crumbles at the slightest touch, because Argentina is still nominally a federal country and each province has its own stats bureau. Indec releases a metropolitan consumer price index (IPC) showing inflation for Buenos Aires City plus Greater Buenos Aires, where Moreno and his thugs can pressure producers and supermarket chains and manipulate the prices at will, and where the inflation rate is consistently less than what common sense dictates. It also releases a national consumer price index, which is not really national but includes weighted data from several provinces (presumably based on sampling criteria). The national IPC has been showing higher inflation than the metropolitan one.

And finally —surprise, surprise— when one reviews the IPCs calculated by the stats bureaus of the provinces that are not included in Indec's national sample, the inflation rate is much, much higher.

Granted, the Entre Ríos bureau uses different criteria, leaving out some services and tourism and giving more weight to (for example) fruits and vegetables. The other provinces surely do similar stuff. Therefore the IPCs are not directly comparable. But this shows that maybe, just maybe, Indec is not doing its thing right — that's what you think when your figures are considered meaningless and irrelevant for the public.

Public perception is that Indec is simply making up the figures. More educated observers note that Indec might simply be selecting a biased sample and/or giving sample items a weight that doesn't correspond to its relevance in real economy. You can stop doing tourism every long weekend; your dog can do without a weekly grooming by professionals; your children don't need to have a brand-new cellphone every six months; but you cannot (or should not be forced to) stop eating tomatoes and lettuce or drinking milk and yoghurt.

On top of that, it's been announced that Indec will begin using the "American method" to eliminate seasonal variations from the price index. That's right — so when the price of tomatoes increases fourfold during the winter, they'll just ignore it and take the previous price as an estimate, because everybody knows that tomatoes are like that, always going up and down like crazy. If this is the same for other items, I guess they won't record anything unusual if medical laboratories decide to start selling $20 aspirins next winter.

Regardless of the method and its results, yelling at people from a stand, hinting that they're all fools if they believe the opposition, and denouncing invisible conspiracies to make tomatoes look expensive, is the kind of thing that would cost an elected official his or her job, or in the case of a minister, cause the president to ask for his or her resignation ipso facto. Only here can Fernández be such an ignorant foul-mouthed thug and survive intact.


  1. This is also very difficult for manufacturers of goods like me. I have to justify why my prices go up a given % and my clients have to do all the math work in house to bounce it against all their other providers to see if it´s similar to what every one else is doing. They can´t rely on those official stats any more.

    Consequently the decision process is longer, everyone tries to protect themselves and both the buyer and the seller think that the other guy is trying to take advantage of them. This is mostly for private label scenarios since everyone who sells my label knows that at the end of the day, if I mess up on the pricing, the risk of pricing myself out of the market is all mine.

  2. So...what is going on with the banks? Meaning, is capital flight visible, or are people/businesses (foreign or otherwise) holding out for some (ridiculous) hope that Cristina (or whoever wins) will address inflation issues accordingly?

  3. Frank: what you explain is exactly why prices are going up without sense. Statisticians have the tools to calculate tendencies and know they must eliminate sharp brief spikes in the price curve, but you can't do that and you need to stay on the safe side if you're running a business.

    M.P.A.-T.: I think the banks are doing fine. Some speculation took place when the news of the U.S. real estate bubble burst hit the markets, but there are abundant foreign currency reserves and the Central Bank coped well. People aren't withdrawing money in massive amounts from the banks.

    What Cristina will do is an open question, since she hasn't said anything of substance during the campaign. I know she must know that this Orwellian thing will not hold for long, but whether she'll acknowledge the mistakes or turn into a bona fide dictator, I don't know.


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