Directly answering a question during an interview in a local media program about the issue of fuels market and pricing, newly-installed Energy Minister Javier Iguacel said: “There is no restriction. There is a free market.” The statement, on its face, does not appear to be overly dramatic, but it is quite important when considered against the backdrop of the last several weeks in Argentina.
In addition to the change at the top of the energy ministry, the government’s negotiations with the IMF, and a major transport strike at the end of June, the Macri administration had felt immense pressure to revise if not reverse several areas of its economic reform agenda that many economists and pundits argued were exacerbating the country’s inflation woes.
Nowhere was this more important than in the energy sector and the issues of tariff adjustments and the liberalization of the fuels market that went into effect at the end of 2017 but were thrown into some disarray when former Minister Aranguren signed a so-called stability pact with several fuel retailers to temporarily freeze fuel prices in an effort to alleviate inflationary pressure.
Indeed, the change of Aranguren for Iguacel was almost certainly a response to political and public relations pressure, but also in favor of new leadership that would again drive forward with Macri’s liberalization plans and objectives. This point was affirmed when, during the same interview, Minister Iguacel spoke very assuredly on how he intended to manage the fuel market challenge: “a policy of total interventionism, where two or three people set prices in a small room has generated many distortions."
Minister Iguacel has also begun to reorganize key staff and officials in the Ministry of Energy, replacing in many instances holdovers from Aranguren’s tenure particularly those viewed as close to the former minister and part of some of the decisions in his final months with regards to market interventions.
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The most notable change to-date has been Minister Iguacel’s bringing aboard Mario Dell'Acqua, the president of Aerolineas Argentinas, the state-run airline. Dell’Acqua will take over as the president of the government-run and ministry of energy-directed Integración Energética Argentina SA (IEASA). In simplistic terms, IEASA is the agglomeration of state energy enterprises that had been assembled under the previous Kirchner governments and nominally under the banner and state firm ENARSA. Dell’Acqua’s role at IEASA will be crucial in unwinding several state-owned energy assets, investments in transmission company Transener and managing bidding for new electric generation capacity, particularly for Buenos Aires.
Nor did Iguacel miss an opportunity to criticize the energy policies, manipulation and intervention in the sector by Macri’s predecessor forcefully noting, for what could be argued was the umpteenth time, that many of the market issues and challenges faced by Argentina were wrought by decisions, lack of decisions or worse, corruption, from the previous administrations.
But beyond those critiques, the more recent developments surrounding the lack of competition, or true liberalization of the market, has also reared its ugly head with regards to supply. In recent weeks certain retailers and fuel stations have been without supply and blame has been aimed at oil companies, the government’s policies, and the market. But it is precisely the latter, or insufficient development of the market that the Macri administration has long argued is the reason for any supply challenges for oil and gas and fuels in Argentina.
Meanwhile, the president of Argentina’s Confederation of Hydrocarbons Trade Entities, or CECHA, Carlos Gold took more direct aim and placed the supply and pricing challenges at the feet of local oil companies who, he argued, have distorted the market by placing a quota on fuel delivery and when the quota is exceeded there is a price differential.
Since taking over the reorganized Ministry of Energy last month, Minister Iguacel has begun to patiently assemble his vision for managing the energy ministry and by extension the energy policy outlook for Argentina under President Macri. The latest statements and very clear indications with regards to the debate swirling around the fuels market underscore that the Macri government remains committed to its energy reform agenda. Moreover, the pressure from inflation, demands and criticisms from friends and foes to perhaps slow down the reform process will not cause a reversal at this point.
By Jeremy Martin via Institute of the Americas
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