This Is a Recipe for Massive Hyperinflation or Bankruptcy

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Nobody was really shocked when Venezuela devalued the bolivar earlier this month from 4.3 to the dollar to 6.3.

When it comes to the currency wars, massive devaluations are simply one of the keys to this "race to the bottom" strategy.

But Venezuela's bad behavior, and that of several other countries in the region, means that several Latin American countries are now likely to suffer hyper-inflation or declare bankruptcy.

For investors in Latin America, that raises the risks for everyone, even for countries with good policies and relatively low debt.

Unfortunately, long-standing investors in this part of the world have seen this hyperinflationary pattern before.

Hyperinflation Gone Wild

For instance, Argentina suffered average annual consumer price inflation of 546% between 1975 and 1991. During that period it went through three currency re-denominations that included a 10,000-for-1 devaluation in 1983, a 1,000-for-1 in 1985 and another 10,000-for-1 change in 1992.

Similarly, Brazil suffered average inflation of 773% between 1981 and 1995. During that period it went through four currency re-denominations, with multiples of 1,000 for 1 in 1986, 1989 and 1993, and 2,750 for 1 in 1995.

Finally, Peru suffered average inflation of 809% between 1978 and 1993; during that period it went through two currency re-denominations, with multiples of 1,000 for 1 in 1985 and 1,000,000 for 1 in 1991.

In other words, in a period of less than 20 years, the three countries knocked 9, 11 and more than 12 zeros off the value of their currencies.

You'd think hyperinflation would prevent debt defaults, but in these cases it didn't.

Argentina defaulted in 1982 and 1989, in addition to its other defaults in 1827, 1890, 1951, 1956 and 2002. Brazil defaulted three times during its period of hyperinflation – and another 7 times outside it.

Peru also defaulted three times during its period of hyperinflation – and six more times outside it. You wouldn't want to buy the debt of any of these three losers, in my view, although Peru is currently notably better run than the other two.

As for Venezuela, it has managed so far to avoid the hyperinflation that has afflicted the other countries, in the sense that its annual inflation rate has never made it into three digits. However, its record on default is correspondingly worse, having defaulted no fewer than 11 times in its 202 years of existence as an independent nation.

What Latin American Investors Need to Know Now

Foreign investors in these sorry track records have lost their shirts, over and over again.

In the 1990s and 2000s, it seemed that the Latin American countries had grown up, with Argentina being carefully run and very popular in the 1990s, and Brazil having a very good run since 2002.

In some cases, the perception has continued:

  • Chile has been well run economically by both autocratic and democratic governments since President Augusto Pinochet took over in 1973. It now has very little foreign debt and a reputation for integrity better than that of the United States, according to global surveys.
  • Colombia, which had always been better at avoiding debt defaults (none since 1935) and has also avoided hyperinflation, currently appears one of the world's best growth stories.
  • Peru, which had a dreadful track record in 1978-93, has been much better managed since then, with relatively low debt. Even in 2010, in the early stages of the current enthusiastic market for emerging-market bonds, it managed to issue 40-year bonds.

Nevertheless, overall there are as many likely losers as winners.

Venezuelan inflation is clearly headed towards the triple digit level (49% annually in the last two months) and even if Hugo Chavez goes, his Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, is committed to the same overspending and hostility to international capital.

Argentina's Cristina Kirchner jails people who disclose the true inflation rate (somewhere north of 30%) and is likely to run out of money soon – if she doesn't start a war with Britain over the Falkland Islands first.

Brazil under Dilma Rousseff has gone ex-growth and is about to ramp up public spending again to pay for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. In addition, smaller countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador are enthusiastically following in Chavez' and Kirchner's footsteps.

The point is if half the South American continent goes bust, it can't be good news for the other half.

For one thing, trade relationships will be disrupted and companies with large operations in the bankrupt countries will suffer large losses.

For another, international capital markets are likely to "redline" the continent altogether as they did in the 1980s, even though at that time a number of Latin American countries were competently run.

Then there are the political repercussions if countries suffering hyperinflation or bankruptcy try to distract their citizens by starting a war. Old rivalries die hard, and Argentina/Chile, Bolivia/Chile and Venezuela/Colombia are all borders that have seen flare-ups in recent years.

It's a great shame for the well-run countries of Latin America, which are doing things right, growing their economies rapidly, and deserve to be rewarded.

But as investors, we should be careful with our money. The currency wars make Latin America a very slippery slope.

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Join the conversation. Click here to jump to comments…

  1. stewart | February 27, 2013

    Stop exciting youself about cooper pedi. many isues yet. 3 bill to drill mire tests. land rights. envirinmental could take yearsvthats why linc stoc not changed.

  2. Benton H Marder | February 27, 2013

    Martin, what difference does it make? The money, all over the world, is nothing but bumfodder and magnetism. Eventually, the constant creation out of thin air is going to turn the whole global economy into a Weimar or Zimbabwe scene—-wheelbarrows will be worth more than bales of large-denomination currency. As the Mogambo Guru puts it so charmingly, "We're freakin' doomed!" The timing is the only variable.

  3. Alfredo Gonzalez | February 27, 2013

    Excelent article

  4. MediaMac | February 27, 2013

    I have asked this question many times before of newsletters, but have never received an answer.

    Will the US$ drag down the economy of countries like Panama and Ecuador who use our currency?

    I'm planning to start a business down there, but don't want to get caught in a down-draft!

    • Robert in Canada | March 3, 2013

      If your expenses are in US$ and your income is in other currencies, your business in Panama will do very well.

      But if both your expenses and income are in US$, your business in Panama will suffer the consequences of inflation or stagflation as the value of the US$ goes down against other currencies.

  5. H. Craig Bradley | February 27, 2013

    AGE OF TURBULENCE & POOR SPORTS

    They don't call the Southern Hemisphere in Central and South America "Banana Republics" for nothing. Speaking of currency "wars", they (conflicts) remind me somewhat of indiscriminate shooting- sort of like a African Big Game hunter who herd shoots and nicks an Antelope because he is a rather poor shot when it comes to aiming at only one animal at a time. Same thing with currency wars- lots of potential collateral damages and rather uncontrolled and unintended consequences, as well.

  6. F A Liberatore | February 27, 2013

    Ecuador uses US dollar as a national currency. Does that lower the risk?

  7. H. Craig Bradley | March 1, 2013

    COOL DEVALUATIONS

    We can tell ourselves how smart we are if America ever devalues its currency in a similar manner as Argentina. I doubt it will happen that way, but we could still experience 15%-29% annual inflation, which would destroy the Middle Class if it lasted more than a few months. Costs would quickly outstrip paychecks and even the lucky ones who work for the Federal Government would only get a COLA adjustment to their pay rates once a year.

    COLA adjustments are based on the CPI for the previous 12 month period and usually are behind the curve by about 18 months when they go into effect in each January. So, you never really catch up- just fall farther behind. Eventually, after a couple of years, your standard of living is permanently reduced. Work harder and make less after tax dollars.

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