Argentina accused of muzzling economists

July 13, 2011 at 3:53 PM
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BUENOS AIRES, July 13 (UPI) -- Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is facing accusations her administration is seeking to muzzle independent economists for publishing data that runs counter to the government's version of key statistics on economic performance.

Fernandez and non-government economic think tanks in the country have been at loggerheads frequently over data that critics dismiss as window dressing, bearing little relation to actual economic events.

The government faced accusations that it played down data on economic performance and manipulated figures on inflation. Senior officials denied the accusations and questioned the independent economists' version of the same economic events.

In a further escalation the government filed criminal charges against the managers of M&S Consultores economic consulting firm after several weeks of public arguments over the veracity of competing figures on inflation.

Government lawyers said M&S Consultores published "false information" about Argentina's inflation for economic gain and the information also led to fluctuations in the financial markets.

M&S Managing Partner Rodolfo Santangelo said the government charges were ridiculous and the firm's inflation data didn't affect financial markets.

Complex domestic and external factors have hit Argentina's economy amid uncertainties over global energy prices and commodity markets. Argentine consumer prices rose 9.7 percent in May compared with data a year earlier, but that figure from Indec official statistics agency conflicted with independent estimates that the number was nearer 20 percent.

The independent estimates came not only from M&S consultants but also from other economists using conventional methodologies for extracting information from the maze of government data. Critics allege Indec data are either incomplete or misleading and weighted toward the government's point of view.

Indec's impartiality has been under scrutiny since former President Nestor Kirchner, late husband of Fernandez, overhauled the statistical analysis bureau in 2007 by jettisoning the statisticians and appointing loyalists in their place.

The Commerce Secretariat recently began imposing fines on economic analysis firms but the threat of prosecution is the strongest reaction so far. Fines on allegedly errant economic firms have earned the government lucrative sums. Nine companies were fined $122,000 each since the beginning of the year.

One of the affected firms, Orlando J Ferreres & Asociados, said the fines and threatened prosecutions were part of the government strategy to suppress unfavorable economic information before the Oct. 23 presidential election in which Fernandez expects to win a second term.

Some help for the economists has come from a congressional freedom-of-speech committee that has begun to compile and publish independent economic data without acknowledging the source. Analysts point out that the congressional support, while welcome, won't save independent economic analysis firms from bankruptcy if they start losing their clients in the absence of the product.

The government is also facing open criticism of the economy's fragile state from outside the circles that it can control. Nicolas Eyzaguirre, head of the Western Hemisphere department at the International Monetary Fund, said the country's overheated economy was like "a frying pan with boiling oil."

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