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What next for Argentina? Historic market crash ramps up fears of another default

Key Points
  • The cost of insuring exposure to Argentina's sovereign debt has almost tripled since Friday, according to Reuters Eikon data.
  • IHS Markit's latest estimates, based on Wednesday's closing level, suggest that the probability of a sovereign default within a one-year period now stands at 55%.
  • Meanwhile, over a five-year period, the likelihood of default is seen at 82.5%.
Protesters demonstrate in front of the Central Bank of Argentina in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. In the wake of President Mauricio Macri's stunning rout in primary elections over the weekend, investors dumped its stocks, bonds and currency en masse, leaving much of Wall Street wondering whether the country was headed for yet another default.
Erica Canepa | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Argentina's historic market collapse has sparked fears that South America's second-largest country is on track for yet another default.

A stunning result in primary polls over the weekend set off a shockwave in financial markets, with the country's stock market tumbling 48% in dollar terms on Monday. That marked the second-biggest one-day slump anywhere since 1950, Reuters reported.

In a vote seen by many as a key gauge for the first round of Argentina's presidential elections on October 27, President Mauricio Macri lost by a far greater margin than expected.

It has cast serious doubt over the center-right incumbent's re-election chances in less than 75 days' time.

The cost of insuring exposure to Argentina's sovereign debt has almost tripled since Friday, according to Reuters Eikon data. Argentine 5-year credit default swaps (CDS) were marked at 2,720 basis points on Wednesday, well over Friday's closing level of 1,017 prior to Sunday's nationwide ballot.

IHS Markit's latest estimates, based on Wednesday's closing level, suggest that the probability of a sovereign default within a one-year period now stands at 55%.

Meanwhile, over a five-year period, the likelihood of default is seen at 82.5%.

Stock market and currency collapse

In an attempt to lessen the pain of an economic crisis less than three months before elections, Macri announced a package of welfare subsidies and tax cuts for lower-income workers on Wednesday.

The measures marked a significant turnabout in the president's IMF-backed efforts to balance the crisis-prone country's budget, although market participants seemed unconvinced by his proposals.

The super-sensitive peso, seen by some as a guide for Argentina's economy, closed more than 7% weaker on Wednesday to reach 60.2 per U.S. dollar. The currency has lost a quarter of its value so far this week, while Argentina's main stock market has fallen nearly 35% in three days.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who has been defeated in the primary elections for the reelection, during a press conference at the Casa Rosada, the government house, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019.
Mario De Fina | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch now believe there is a 50% chance Argentina will default on its sovereign debt next year.

The bank said massive government financial needs of around $30 billion next year, a weak fiscal situation and a lack of market credibility all imply a large probability of default in 2020.

It also warned the recent market collapse would most likely "weigh heavily on the economy going forward" with 2020 expected to mark a third consecutive year of recession.

Fernandez in pole position

The opposition ticket of center-left Alberto Fernandez, whose running mate is populist ex-leader Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, received more than 47% of the vote on Sunday.

That was roughly 15% more than Macri and his running mate Miguel Angel Pichetto, with analysts saying it proved voters were fed up with austere economic policy.

The primaries are seen as a relatively accurate indicator of public opinion ahead of the elections, as all parties take part and voter participation is mandatory. The result showed Fernandez and de Kirchner could have enough support to avoid a potential run-off vote in November.

Presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez talks to supporters at the "Frente de Todos" party headquarters during the Simultaneous and Mandatory Open Primaries (PASO) on August 12, 2019, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Ricardo Ceppi | Getty Images News | Getty Images

In Argentina, candidates need at least 45% of the vote to win outright in the first round of presidential elections or 40% with a 10% lead over their closest rival.

Fernandez has previously said he wants to renegotiate the terms of Argentina's historic $57 billion standby agreement with the IMF, aggravating worries of a debt restructuring.

IMF left 'looking stupid'

Bill Blain, strategist at Shard Capital, said in a research note published Tuesday that the latest economic crisis in Argentina was "all about global creditability (and) it is another massive fail."

Christine Lagarde, the former managing director of the IMF and soon-to-be head of the European Central Bank (ECB), "personally staked her support" for Macri's pro-market government last year, Blain said. That's because she "steamrollered through the IMF's biggest ever bailout" for Argentina.

This decision now looked "an extremely poor call on Lagarde's part," Blain said, before adding domestic politics in South America's second-largest country had left the IMF "looking stupid."

The IMF was not immediately available to comment when contacted by CNBC Thursday morning.

In June, Lagarde was quoted by the Buenos Aires Times as saying the IMF had "underestimated" the "incredibly complicated" economic situation in Argentina.

Shortly thereafter, Lagarde submitted her resignation from the global crisis lender, citing more clarity about her nomination to lead the ECB. The former French finance minister is expected to succeed Mario Draghi as the President of the ECB later this year.