Analysis-As economy wilts, Argentina’s Massa seeks to sow hope with farm chiefs

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FILE PHOTO: Argentina's new Economy Minister Sergio Massa talks to the media, in Buenos Aires

By David Alire Garcia

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – The “superminister” tasked with rescuing Argentina’s crisis-racked economy needs cash now, and so just days into the job he has launched a charm offensive to win over farm industry titans to access crucial debt forgiveness ahead of a looming deadline.

Economy Minister Sergio Massa – whose unusually wide remit also extends to agriculture and trade – began wooing the farm chiefs, long at odds with the ruling center-left Peronists, at a traditional “asado” barbecue late last week.

Massa’s hours-long lunch with four powerful farm association leaders took place just outside Buenos Aires last Friday, with everyone at the table almost certainly aware of the government’s desperation for U.S. dollars to meet the terms of Argentina’s $44 billion debt deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Specifically, a September foreign reserves target of 1% of GDP, or about $4.1 billion, must be met to allow the government to recoup its next payment of about $2 billion.

Loading a mounting stockpile of grains into ships for export would generate hard currency from Argentina’s massive farm sector, which contributed a quarter of economic output last year representing some $105 billion. That, in turn, would boost the central bank’s depleted dollar holdings.

“The starting point for Massa was just the personal engagement,” said a source briefed on the meeting with farm industry chiefs from first-hand participants, emphasizing that the minister did not commit to any specific measures.

“The main message he told them: ‘Trust me,'” said the source.

Massa, a savvy politician who on Aug. 3 became the country’s third economy minister in little over a month, is widely seen as President Alberto Fernandez’s last hope to halt upwards of 90% inflation this year and the rapidly declining value of the peso currency, which has led farmers to significantly slow their sales.

“We talked about issues that nobody has ever raised,” one of the four main farm leaders, Jorge Chemes, told reporters after the barbecue, noting discussion of a potentially “deep tax reform” that could boost farmers’ bottom line and help persuade them to sell more.

He said lower-level technical meetings are planned for this week, with another meeting of principals seen shortly after that.

The economy ministry did not respond to written questions.

UNWANTED PESOS

Some 23 million tonnes of mostly soybeans worth around $9 billion remain in storage – a record volume for this time of year, according to data from national grains exporters association CEC. Many farmers say they are sitting on their stocks in hopes of better terms, or a more favorable exchange rate in the country’s tightly controlled currency market.

The gap between the official peso-to-dollar exchange rate and the parallel black market rate hovers around 130%.

Graphic: Argentina’s currency split https://graphics.reuters.com/ARGENTINA-ECONOMY/EXCHANGE/dwpkrwlrxvm/chart.png

Last week, Massa, along with the central bank, suggested a possible carrot to would-be exporters, boosting to 180 days from five days the time they have to report the dollar value of shipments. Massa has said he expects that could generate $5 billion for the treasury in the next few weeks.

The measure could benefit exporters primarily by helping them avoid accumulating unwanted pesos, according to Antonio Aracre, a top regional executive for Swiss agrochemicals group Syngenta.

Aracre said a separate “dollar-link” measure, aimed at persuading farmers to sell more soybeans, currently protects 70% of the dollar value of sales in the event of a feared devaluation of the official rate.

He also cited speculation that the farmer-friendly scheme could be further boosted.

“If farmers think they’re about to improve it, everyone will wait for that,” he said.

But so long as farmers dread further deterioration of the peso, getting them to part ways with their stored supplies is a tough sell.

“Look, a farmer having soybeans is like having dollars,” said Gustavo Grobocopatel, the founder of leading soy producer Grupo Grobo.

“But people are running away from the peso.”

He emphasized that meeting the IMF reserves target does not begin to touch what Argentina’s economy really needs, mentioning jobs creation and reining in government spending – which has nearly doubled over the past two decades.

“If the politicians can’t come to an agreement on all that,” he said, “everything else probably just won’t work.”

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia in Buenos Aires; Additional reporting by Maximilian Heath and Jorge Otaola in Buenos Aires; Editing by Christian Plumb and Matthew Lewis)

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