Bill Bonner: Back to reality

Argentina: quirky, wacky, and out-of-control, says Bill Bonner.

Bill Bonner is back from his sabbatical. He has tales to tell from the Argentinian outback as he gathers his thoughts about money.

Do we have a faraway look in our eyes? Do we seem 'spacey', perhaps a little 'out of it'?

Maybe so.

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Up in the high Andes, sensations hit you hard like an adobe brick. Now we are feeling a little let-down. A few days ago we had the hot sun beating down on us. Now, we are back to the dim light of a computer screen. A few days ago, we rose before dawn in order to ride eight hours on horseback to visit ancient Indian ruins, crossing streams, breaching mountain passes, discovering hidden Shangri-La valleys. Now, we cross the street to buy a caf latte and settle into our comfy desk chair.

We have come back from our sabbatical. Older, certainly. Tanner and leaner? Yes. Wiser? Probably not. But surely distracted. The smell of the sage is still fresh on our nostrils. The weight of the big adobe bricks, the open fires and juicy meat, grapes on the vine, nuts on the trees, flies on the open wounds, the smokey kitchens, and Gone with the Wind sunsets it is all still so vivid. So real. So unlike the latest GDP or CPI statistics!

What part of it will we tell you about? What would you like to know? How can we make sense of it?

Why would a 63-year-old man, who has spent his entire career in front of a keyboard, at sea level, take a retreat to 8,000 feet and spend ten hours a day doing hard work with a team of leathery gauchos? Why would he build a house of sun-baked bricks and chiselled stones, a house he didn't need, using Roman-era construction techniques? Why didn't his wife or children stop him?

Some of these questions we cannot answer. We have struggled to make sense of them. Perhaps they have no answer, other than "it seemed like a good idea at the time."

So, all we can do is to tell the story, but which story?

Of how he got caught in a flash flood and had to beach his pick-up truck on the rocks?

...or how he met an eccentric European aristocrat who bought 30,000 acres of Argentinian farmland for $250,000?

...or how he and a Dear Reader took off their trousers and waded across the Calchaqu River in broad daylight?

...or how this same Daily Reckoning reader ended up in possession of the only castle in northern Argentina.

...or how Elizabeth rode 12 hours on horseback to a hidden mountain valley in order to give Holy Communion to a 95-year-old blind woman, and discovered the Incas' 'natural viagra'?

And where to begin?

Oh yes, let's begin with a little economic update. The former head of Argentina's central bank had a run-in with the elected government. The politicians insisted on using the bank's financial reserves that is, the nation's vital foreign currency reserves in order to pay its debts. The banker, to his credit, refused, and was fired in February 2010. He was replaced with a banker cast more in the mould of Ben Bernanke or Mario Draghi. That is, a more modern, pliable, flexible banker a scoundrel, in other words.

The new head of the Argentine central bank recently asserted that there was "no correlation" between money-printing and inflation. That's the kind of man we want at the head of a central bank. Not some namby-pamby economist who beats around the bush, talks out of both sides of his mouth, obfuscates and confuses... not a guy whom you never know when you can believe him or not. No, we want a guy we can trust... who is a 100%, four-square fool. Then, we know when he is talking nonsense whenever his lips are moving!

That's what's nice about Argentina. You know where you stand. You know the politicians are crooked and the bureaucrats are incompetent, if not completely mad. You know you have to find a way around them, a way to dodge their rules, a way to protect yourself. You know the government's figures are lies and its promises are empty. You know what to do with its currency too try to get rid of it at the earliest opportunity.

That's why the federales in Argentina have new dogs on the job at the international airports. They're not trying to stop people from bringing in weapons or contraband. They're trying to stop people from taking out dollars!

Yes, dear reader, the papers tell us that the Argentinians have trained dogs to sniff out dollars striking fear in the hearts of those who would try to convert their pesos to dollars and take them where they might be safe.

And more thoughts...

Meanwhile, the Kirchner government has announced the forced nationalisation of the nation's biggest oil company YPF. Naturally. The government said it was unhappy with the way the owners were (not) investing in new development. So, they're taking the company into their own hands as if the penniless pampa feds will invest more!

What better way to convince foreign investors NOT to invest their money in Argentina; take away their assets. Heck, it worked for Cuba and Venezuela.

Seems transparently nutty. But that's what's so good about it. You know what is going on in Argentina. You know for a dead certainty that the government is corrupt and incompetent. And you know you have to watch out! (For more on this story, read John Stepek's piece from this morning, How to profit from Argentina's seizure of oil company YPF)

Fortunately, while the Argentinians close doors publicly, they leave doors open privately. That is, it is a society like Sicily, where there are laws, and there are ways around them.

We were worried about the effects of another stupid law passed recently by the Argentinian government. It prevents foreigners from owning large parcels of farmland. Since your editor owns two large parcels, and since even a blind, deaf and dumb man could not mistake him for an authentic Argentinian, he would seem to be the very person the law is meant to restrain. So, we put the question to our lawyer.

"Yes," he said. "That's what the law says. But this is Argentina."

We do not always draw the correct meaning - or the full meaning - from someone speaking in Spanish. But we think we know what he had in mind.

Yes, a law was passed by the central assembly, apparently aimed at stopping foreign landowners from accumulating substantial holdings. But, no, there was nothing to worry about. For there is a wide river between passing a law and implementing it, and often, in the far northwest of the country, the river can't be crossed.

"In 200 years of foreign property owners, Argentina has never expropriated land," he went on.

"Yes, but it just expropriated an oil company... "

"Well, this is Argentina... "

We love Argentina. It is so quirky, wacky, and out-of-control. For example, it has recently banned the importation of foreign books. Why? It says it can't be sure the ink used in foreign books meets its lead standards. What next? We can't wait to see.

But our adventures in the northwest were of an entirely different quality. There, we were not confronted by a nutty government or a Three Stooges bureaucracy. No, up there, nature - and human nature - rule. They are magnificent. They are hard. They are sweet and indomitable.

Yesterday, before getting on a plane for Miami, we stopped in at Montevideo, Uruguay. We wanted to find out more about what was going on. Uruguay is a banking haven and used to welcome foreigners and ask few questions. Now, it insists on following roughly the same rules as every other country. You can still move to Uruguay. But you need to follow the rules carefully.

"I guess that means you have fewer foreigners coming in," we suggested to an immigration lawyer.

"Not at all. We've never had so many."

"Where are they coming from?"

"Europe... and America."


"They say they just want to be safe. They think Europe and America are going to go broke and have serious social problems. We don't have those kinds of problems in Uruguay. Our banks are solid. There is not a lot of debt. And we're a long way from either Europe or America. People come here. They like our relaxed, safe lifestyle. They buy a farm in the country or an apartment on the ocean. They feel like they have some place to go if things go bad in their home countries."

An article in the US press confirmed that the US is no longer a magnet for immigrants. Net illegal immigration into the US (netted out against those who go home) is now zero.

And now the New York Times reports that children of immigrants are going home: "In growing numbers, experts say, highly educated children of immigrants to the United States are uprooting themselves and moving to their ancestral countries. They are embracing homelands that their parents once spurned but that are now economic powers"

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