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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-06-2020 11:11

Taxation the only certainty beyond the end of life (and this column)

Taxation dates from this country’s earliest days even if customs dominated revenue in colonial and 19th century Argentina, the root cause of the incredible centralisation persisting today.

This series fleshing out the Cabinet of President Alberto Fernández necessarily ends today because only one of the 31 ministerial and other appointments announced last December 6 still remains – Mercedes Marcó del Pont, 60, the chief of AFIP tax bureau. AFIP will be accompanied here by the Central Bank she once headed and by the ANSES social security administration, which is the natural companion of the PAMI pensioner service forming part of last week’s penultimate column.     

Acquiring a Yale masters after graduating from the University of Buenos Aires, economist Mercedes Marcó del Pont is the cousin of the previous Interior minister Rogelio Frigero’s father Octavio, which places her firmly within the clan espousing Arturo Frondizi’s development ideology at the time of her birth. She was a Frente para la Victoria deputy (2005-2008) before heading both the Banco Nación (2008-2010) and the Central Bank (2010-2013), when she was the boss of its new governor Miguel Pesce, during the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (to whom she remains close).

If Benjamin Franklin (a universal presence here thanks to 100-dollar banknotes) famously opined that nothing is certain in life except death and taxes two decades before Argentine nationhood was born, taxation obviously dates from this country’s earliest days even if customs dominated revenue in colonial and 19th century Argentina, the root cause of the incredible centralisation persisting today. There was indeed no tax authority until 1931 (acquiring its contemporary name of Dirección General Impositiva, or DGI, in 1949), working on parallel lines with Customs until both were merged into AFIP (Administracion Federal de Ingresos Públicos) in 1996. Marcó del Pont is its 10th director – Alberto Abad (101 months in two stints) and Ricardo Echegaray (84 months) account for most of its 282 months of existence with other directors short-lived.

No space here for any detailed analysis of Argentina’s tax system – suffice it to say that its thrust definitely favours indirect and flat levies over direct and progressive taxation with an irrational multiplicity of no less than 166 different taxes (42 of them national and half municipal). Economy Minister Martín Guzmán sees tax simplification as his next challenge following a “sustainable” settlement of the foreign debt.

Central Bank Governor Miguel Ángel Pesce, a Mendoza Radical who joined Kirchnerismo alongside Vice-President Julio Cobos in 2007 but remaining a “K Radical” ever since, also briefly headed the Central Bank for five days in 2010 between Martín Redrado and Marcó del Pont, as well as serving as the institution’s deputy governor for over a decade between 2004 and 2015, thus accumulating vast experience. A 57-year-old economist specialising in economic data analysis, he served both the Radical presidents since 1983 in his youth – Raúl Alfonsín as a Congress advisor and Fernando de la Rúa during his time at City Hall, where he stayed on during Aníbal Ibarra’s mayoralty. Pesce sat out the Mauricio Macri presidency in Tierra del Fuego provincial banking. His first half-year heading the Central Bank now has featured slashing interest rates below 40 percent despite 2019 inflation of almost 54 percent and printing hundreds of billions of pesos monthly since the pandemic began (and a fair whack even beforehand).

The Central Bank was created in 1935 by Raúl Prebisch as a lender of last instance because the older Banco de la Nación – created in 1891 to apply the gold standard underlying Carlos Pellegrini’s convertibility – could not fully adjust to Argentina abandoning that gold standard between 1929 and 1931. It was nationalised just before Juan Domingo Perón’s inauguration in 1946 at his request but its charter was amended in 1957 in favour of a more liberal financial system (a tendency only reinforced by further reforms in 1992). Highlights include creation of the austral in 1985 and convertibility in 1991 but rarely in the past century and even less in this century has the Central Bank been the birthplace of monetary policy (the short-lived and derailed inflation targeting of Federico Sturzenegger might be an exception).

No less than 62 changes in its 85 years (59 different governors) belie the claims of independence intermittently made by some governments. The Central Bank’s primordial objective is to defend the stability of the currency but 10 zeroes chopped off the peso since the return of democracy in 1983 would point to an epic failure here, despite trying virtually every monetary policy known to man, ranging from maxi-devaluations to self-destructively prolonged defences of an overvalued coinage.

Reduced space for the curricula vitae of the past and present heads of ANSES (Administración Nacional de la Seguridad Social) because Alejandro Vanoli, 59, already belongs to the past while María Fernanda Raverta, 43, has only just started. Heading Argentina’s CNV equivalent of the Securities & Exchange Commission from 2009 to 2014, Vanoli was then Central Bank governor for the last 14 months of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency. He lasted just 20 weeks heading ANSES – ostensibly because of the absurd April 3 mid-quarantine congestion of thousands of pensioners and IFE emergency family benefit recipients collecting at the same time, but also reportedly for not advancing sufficient numbers of La Cámpora militants to the boards of mixed companies. If so, La Cámpora was compensated with Raverta, a social worker, 2015-2019 deputy and unsuccessful Mar del Plata mayoral candidate last year with a notorious father – Mario Montoto, the Montonero guerrilla treasurer half a century ago and today a millionaire thanks to the security camera business.

Created in 1991, ANSES has charge of all pensions, family benefits and dole among other payments, thus commanding a vast budget – almost 1.5 trillion pesos at 2018 values from the most recent exact figure available although it has under two-thirds of the DGI’s staff (some 14,000 employees). Such huge sums make this post a natural political stepping-stone, especially under Peronist governments. At least three of this century’s directors have continued advancing – current Lower House speaker Sergio Massa (2002-2007), current Labour Minister Claudio Moroni (2007-2008) and former vice-president Amado Boudou (2008-2009) – even if most of the 14 directors thus far have been short-lived with only Diego Bossio (2009-2015) topping five years apart from Massa.

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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