There is a lot of interest in Argentina these days as the country elected the business-friendly candidate Mauricio Macri president two years ago. But the situation on the ground is probably different than what you’re assuming. For years Buenos Aires has been known among expats in Latin America as a place to drink wine, eat fat steaks and live in a beautiful city on the cheap.
It’s not cheap anymore.
This article was inspired by two emails from an expat in BA, the first from 2013 after he visited Lima. He was supposed to stay for two months, but left after two weeks. This was the email that originally planted the seed for a “Peru is Rich as F%#!” series.
I blew out of Lima yesterday. Glad I gave it a second run, but after two weeks – the kind of scratch required to feed Peruvian inflation and a strong Sol … I can do Buenos Aires. My friend is renovating flats in Rimac – basic modernization, nothing fancy – and a ghetto pad there now fetches a grand per meter. That’s insane. Too bad, lots of good people in Lima, but little attraction for me beyond the food.
I paid 24 soles for a short pour of shit Chilean wine in the fine bars of Lima. So call it $9.50 per glass, which is U.S. prices at equivalent up-market places. I can buy a real glass (BA pour) for around $3. Cover charge for a good club in Lima was 50 soles ($20) … to see the white Peruvian rich kids do what they do in every other LatAm city – exist in the same social-class bubble. Just got my credit card statement and restaurant prices down on Ave La Mar are fully U.S. level. I was staying for free, so I picked up a lot of tabs at nice places in return.
I would get your arse down to BA and scratch together a living in a great city. Trips like this make me realize just how great a place it is. I figure in about a year or so, the shit will hit the proverbial fan and the really cheap days will return. So many cool barrios to hang around in, drinking wine and watching the world go by. I saw nothing remotely close to that in Lima.
That was 2013. He sent this a couple months ago:
Buenos Aires is totally fucked. Crazy expensive and God knows where the women disappeared to – they’re probably too poor to go out and party. A bottle of wine in my favorite bar was $25 – up from $5 back in 2006. All my expat friends have split and my Argentine friends are dying on the vine, which is heartbreaking. My only remaining expat friend is a Belgian who’s been here for 18 years and owns a potato chip business. He’s about to hang it up and leave. He says he preferred the corruption under the Kirchners – at least he could maneuver around with some scams. Macri has eliminated all the subsidies, which has resulted in massive price increases in things like gas, electric, water/sewer, subway, autopista tolls and, worst of all, property tax hikes of 50% and higher. Add that to continuing 40% inflation and little to no foreign investment that was promised has materialized, and you have a classic LatAm clusterfuck.
Subscribers to the Expat Chronicles newsletter expressed interest in a piece on Argentina’s economic outlook, so I went a little deeper. I interviewed two American expats in Buenos Aires. Here is the first, a financial analyst who earns dollars from an American-based business (no connection to Argentine economy):
Having spent over five years in Argentina, I can say with certainty that the country is intractable. It will only change around the edges and only temporarily. While many in the west laud Macri’s pro-capitalist decisions, most Argentines hate them. Most Argentines think that his repayment of the debt was the stupidest waste of taxpayer money. It is a strange country with certain beautiful things. But strange.
Right now, it is not easy to be an expat. It is easy for me, because I live simply and make enough money. But lots of retirees and passive expats are finding Argentina more expensive by the day. The Argentine Peso continues to be strong against the dollar and with 40% inflation, life has gotten 50% more expensive as the dollar is down 10% over the last year vs. the peso.
Inflation is the killer. Stuff here is American prices now. Inflation has been rampant since the corralito of the early 2000s, but it’s only being felt because there are no more subsidies and the dollar isn’t keeping pace.
The inflation is killing the people who are living on fixed income. You don’t want to say that to the locals who are suffering worse than we are, you don’t want to say how foreigners are suffering, but the truth is that there a lot of expats on fixed income and the dollar hasn’t moved against the peso while inflation is galloping at 40%.
You know how compound interest works, compound inflation is the same. If you have 40% inflation, that’s not 80% after two years. It’s 96%, and three years is 176%. So prices have almost doubled in the last three years.
Expats are definitely departing. Daily life is more expensive than where I’m from in California. Transportation and rent are a steal, that kind of stuff is cheap. But going out and meals, that’s more expensive than California in some places.
Buenos Aires always changes, so eventually it’ll get better for gringos. When the expats and businesses move out, the peso will weaken and it will get cheap here again. Guys like [the author of the two emails] will cause the dollar to get stronger.
From a foreigner’s perspective, the dollar has to shoot up against the peso or inflation has to come down to a reasonable level. I think the dollar will go up soon. Foreigners and businesses are starting to move out. Any economy has built-in stabilization mechanisms, so as inflation gets too high and the currency doesn’t adjust, people start to leave and that depresses the local currency. As inflation continues with a stagnant dollar, that will ultimately even out.
Argentina’s tax base is so small, so many people don’t pay taxes, it was hurting the government and you have substandard service. All the buildings here have gas pipes from 75 years ago. As soon as one person in a 40-unit building says they smell gas, they turn off the gas in the entire building. No gas, and the gas company says they’ll be back in a year or two to fix it. The rates they’re allowed to charge are way below market, they’re so underfunded, they don’t have the manpower or infrastructure they need to take care of customers in a timely manner. This just happened to a friend of mine, a crazy lady in his building – literally mentally ill – called the gas company and the whole building was shut off. And they’ll be without gas for a year and a half. Everybody in the building has to buy electric fans for the summer instead of air conditioning, and if they had a gas stove they need electric countertop stoves for cooking.
But Argentines are used to that. Argentines would rather have that problem than a 300% increase in their gas bill.
Now that those companies are allowed to charge market rates, the hope is that they’ll hire employees and invest in equipment to run what we would consider a normal utility company, a market-based service. But there’s so much corruption here that those increases might just be going into somebody’s pocket.
There are still a lot of problems in the economy like corruption which haven’t been ironed out yet. Right now this teachers strike has completely stopped life downtown. When you have a strike a certain percentage of people don’t go to work. Those people don’t go to lunch, don’t go for drinks after dinner. Some businesses don’t even open up, and their employees who would’ve come don’t come or have lunch or whatever, and it has an exponential effect on the economy. Gringos are pissed at these teacher strikes. They can’t make their appointments, can’t get to where they need to go, can’t get stuff done.
I don’t think Macri will hold Congress in these midterm elections. People don’t understand Argentina. The unions are more powerful than any executive or any politician. And the unions have the support of more than 50% of the voting public.
Argentines don’t really understand the concept of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. And most of them are very displeased with Macri’s reforms, even though to Westerners and Western economists they seem perfectly sensible. Most Argentines are completely dissatisfied. They didn’t want their bus fares raised, they didn’t want their gas bills raised. They’re accustomed to living for a year and a half without gas, they’ll deal with that.
The majority of Argentines that I talk to think that Macri paying back the $15 billion debt was the stupidest thing. They didn’t care that Argentina was shut out of international debt markets, they didn’t care that the IMF sanctioned Argentina for unreliable economic data. They think the money was borrowed by a previous government, the money was spent, wasted, and the judgments against Argentina were decided in a foreign court. I would say more than 50% of the country thinks it was stupid to pay back that debt.
Argentines are just corrupt and lazy. I’ve been robbed by every single doorman in the last four apartments I’ve lived in, including the one I’m living in now. The guy had a key to the apartment and he stole $1000 in cash out of here. And I see the guy every day. The unions are so strong they couldn’t fire him. The only way they could fire him is if I had him on camera, reaching into the drawer where I keep the money and pulling the money out. If I had filmed him, he could have been fired. Fucking ludicrous. I still see the motherfucker every day. I told the owner and he told everybody in the building, but the doorman doesn’t care. He’ll suffer the embarrassment every day because he’ll never get another job as good as this.
In my meditation group we have expats starting to flee. If you go to BAexpats.org, you’ll see more and more people complaining about it. It’s happening.
The other thing that’s happening is tourism is way down. In 2006, American Express Travel magazine ranked Buenos Aires as the #1 tourist destination – the tango, the steak, it’s safe, etc. – but it was really based on the value. It was cheap. But what was a $7 steak dinner then is $35 now, and all those positive attributes go out the window when you have to pay the same prices as California. So tourism is way down. If you walk through the Buenos Aires airport, it has twice the capacity for its current traffic.
A friend and I went for a really nice lunch, I bought. I ordered pork and he had chicken with a couple bottles of water, and I spent $40. I can do that in San Diego.
The quality of the food has gone down because every single cost is going up – water, electric, meat and ingredients. Costs have gone up so fast that if decent restaurants charged what they needed to charge to maintain their quality, they would price their constituency out of the market. So they have to lower their quality.
A restaurant that caters to a middle-class office worker may charge $8 for lunch. Now if they want to maintain that same quality a couple years later, they’re charging $20 for lunch. But they don’t do that. They just buy cheaper ingredients and charge $15 for lunch to keep the restaurant full. I don’t go out anymore. I eat at home all the time.
It’s extremely painful for somebody who’s attached to their creature comforts, and especially if on fixed income.
If Macri can get inflation down, then businesses can operate and things will normalize. They’re saying they can get 3% growth and 17% inflation in 2017, which would be pretty amazing. People’s wages could catch up that way and it would really calm things down considerably. But whether they can do that is an open question.
Things could get cheaper this year if the peronistas sweep the midterms. Investors are going to sell and bail out of here.
The optimism that Macri would introduce market reforms is driving the strength in the currency, the peso. So companies were coming in, Wall Street investors are buying the bonds, speculators are buying the peso. Spanish companies are ramping up investments because they see political stability. And Macri’s whole blanqueo thing where they share info in tax agreements with these other countries, they nabbed all these fat cats hiding their money. They discovered like $90 billion abroad, and it brought in like $9 billion in tax revenue, all in dollars to the Argentine treasury. And they spent all that on pesos, driving up the peso.
So you have all these forces propping up the peso. If all that reverses, the peso goes back to 22 per dollar and the expats are eating steaks and drinking wine for cheap again. And the peronists winning would reverse it right away. In that sense, the expats’ interest is diametrical to the local population, if they’re earning dollars and just want to party.
There are senior expats who are really pinched right now. They can’t afford their medicines. If your Social Security is $2000 a month, that’s not much down here right now. That’s hard to live on.
If I were moving down here, I wouldn’t count on it getting cheaper any time soon. I would count on it getting more expensive for the next several years.
For the average expat with no family, $2500 per month is enough to live decently. To live well, upper-middle-class, you need $4000. That’s how much cash you need to live well right now.
Now Will Aquino, a younger guy whose income is mostly if not entirely based in the local economy.
Riding the wave has been an interesting experience, as everything gets more expensive. For me it went from two-peso empanadas to 20-peso empanadas.
There was a long time when if you had access to dollars, you could make 30% on the difference between the black market and the exchange controls. It helped make things cheaper for a foreigner.
It was illegal to buy and sell dollars. So you’d go to these little exchange houses, nobody says anything. You take a ticket and sit in the line. And you make your trade on the low and hope a cop doesn’t come in and bust the place. I’ve seen that happen a few times.
If I have $1000 to change every month, that becomes $1300 in the exchange houses. That extra profit doesn’t exist for the locals.
But those days are over. Macri removed exchange controls and devalued the peso. So instead of an official rate of 8 to 1 or whatever, it became 14 to 1 from one day to the next. So everybody who wasn’t in a position to have dollars got hurt, their money is worth a lot less. It also affected people like me, expats with access to dollars. It hit us hard, but it didn’t hit us as hard as it hit Argentines.
Macri got rid of the subsidies which were keeping Argentines living in LaLaLand, paying 20 pesos or a couple dollars for their utility bills. Then their utility bills went up like 400%. And so that rocked a lot of people.
I run a nonprofit in the south of the city, a boys and girls club for kids, and I see how it affected these families. They’re used to getting a check for every kid they have enrolled in school and they get subsidies for everything. They got too dependent on it.
They had so many years of people getting used to Cristina’s philosophies and they got so comfortable, I don’t know if it’s that they don’t realize that things cost more. They just got so accustomed to the government paying for it, they think that’s the government’s job now.
I don’t think this place can change drastically. Cristina won’t go to jail. She has too much money and power. Her supporters turn a blind eye to the corruption, obvious corruption. They say it’s not true, and she’ll be back. A lot of people want her back. They’re not the most educated people, but there are many naïve people who want her back, to return to kirchnerismo.
But that’s the other side of Argentina, a closed and prideful part that wants to be Argentine and don’t want to be associated with countries like the United States. And there are many of those people, but there are also a lot who want to see a more open Argentina.
I think Macri will be fine in midterm elections. Things are starting to pay off. As much as people are hurting, Macri is doing a lot of positive things. I’ve seen positive changes across the board in Buenos Aires, from when he was mayor. You still have protests and crime and whatnot, but he’s done a great job. Some of the worst parts of the cities look great and are safer. Bike lanes. There are recycling bins on every block.
I can only speak for Buenos Aires, but the city is cleaner and greener than it’s ever been. New businesses are popping up. You have more foreign investment coming in. Macri’s trying to make Argentina the startup capital of Latin America.
He didn’t lose a huge chunk of his support, but there’s not as much enthusiasm as when he first came in because of the drastic changes. He’s seen as overlooking the people. People are complaining that he’s not taking care of the pueblo.
My favorite thing about Argentines is that they are so resilient. They don’t know what it is to have economic stability. They don’t know stability at all. Imagine if you never knew stability, your father has never known it, your grandfather has never known it. If this happened in the States, people wouldn’t know what to do. In Argentina, they always find a way.
But there is optimism. Many people can see that what things were wasn’t realistic, and it was unhealthy and it’s what got Argentina to what it got to. I’m optimistic. I weathered the storm. I’m starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel. Things are definitely harder. It’s not a walk in the park like it used to be. I know a lot of expats want a cake walk where your money goes really far and you can live really well. But times are changing and there aren’t many places anywhere in the world like that anymore.
There have been better times, but getting in now would be a great idea. Argentina is way more open than they ever have been. It’s not illegal to overstay your visa here, and they don’t deport anyone. The visa restrictions are nonexistent. I’m still a tourist here after nine years. I hadn’t left the country in two years. After two years overstaying, you pay $200 fine. Anything under two years is $100. The max is $200.
If you want to attempt a startup, you can use Argentine as a Petri dish. Do whatever you can under the table. If you want to do the things under the table, it’s a little more work but it’s not hard.
As far as finding employment, there’s always work. Companies are always looking for bilingual and native English speakers. Finding work outside teaching English, especially in tech, is not difficult. There are more and more companies that have offices here. There are a lot of really good developers and designers who are cheap. Tech is doing really well.
The culinary scene is booming. If you’re a young chef or want to do something in food, you’ll never have a problem finding a job. A couple friends started a chicken-wings restaurant. In less than two years they went from an idea on a terrace to having a two-page spread in Playboy and all the big newspapers writing about them.
There’s a guy here from Texas who started with a closed-door restaurant – which a lot of people do – smoking ribs and doing Texas barbecue. Just two weeks ago he opened a second space. He has the first ever renowned barbecue restaurant in Argentina. He smokes his own meat – homemade chorizo, brisket, ribs. He had to pay a bunch of people and play the Argentine way, but he did it.
A closed-door restaurant is an underground, secret restaurant not open to the public. They got big like four or five years ago. A chef takes over an apartment or a building they rent out, and they do their reservations in secret. There’s no storefront or sign. You go and have a dining experience with other random people who wanted to experience that meal, completely under the radar.
They operate like that because there’s a lot of red tape and, especially in the restaurant industry, you’re paying bribes. And sometimes you’re paying the right people, sometimes you’re not. So it can be really expensive. So these closed-door restaurants are pretty normal, and they’re always coming and going as some go formal and the others go under.
I have a friend from New Orleans who opened a closed-door restaurant serving Cajun cuisine, and they eventually opened NOLA legally and it’s popular. Then they opened a fried-chicken-and-beer closed-door, and it’s now a legal restaurant too. This is a very good place to try something out to see if it works.
If you put in the work and do things the Argentine way, you’re going to be successful. People love foreign ideas. That stuff is exploding right now. There is so much opportunity for things that haven’t been done. Just in the last two years we got craft beers and hamburgers. If you come down here with a positive mentality and put in the work, you’re going to be successful. It’s inevitable.
Going back to the expat lifestyle, eating and drinking is definitely more expensive. You have to know where to go and when to go. As a tourist it’s easy to overpay for stuff. I was paying fives pesos for a Fernet and Coke when I got here. Now you can pay 80 pesos. You feel that. Today, a happy hour would be two good beers – craft beers – for 100 pesos, or $8.
The super-cheap times are gone. We’re now at more realistic pricing. I say realistic because, at the end of the day, BA is one of the biggest, nicest cities in the world. Eventually, you have to pay for that. You just do. The golden years of super-cheap everything are gone. Maybe they come back and history repeats itself, but I think that’s unlikely.
If you’re coming with standards from Chicago or New York or San Francisco, cities which are big and awesome like Buenos Aires, it’s still a steal down here. At the end of the day, Buenos Aires offers so much for quality of life. There’s so much going on with parks, events and everything seven days a week.
Being the fashion design capital of the content, you get people from all over Latin America and Europe coming here. You get a mix of every corner of Latin American and Europe in this city. For Europeans, they want to come to Latin America but they want some familiarity. So they choose BA because it feels like home. You can’t go anywhere without hearing French, English or German. Buenos Aires is a more diverse city, not racially but as far as nationalities, than my hometown of Atlanta. It’s like a global village. I don’t know what the value of that is, but for me that’s what makes Buenos Aires the best city on the continent.
This city has given me opportunity and taught me things I wouldn’t learn back home, and it keeps giving me that no matter who’s president. This is a place with a lot of opportunity if you have drive and a work ethic.
Check out Will’s nonprofit, Club Union de los Pibes, or his DJ collective.
UPDATE: the first expat is leaving Argentina.
Very interesting update on Argentine & especially BA. Thanks Colin.
Thanks for posting these two contradictory analyses. They balance out nicely, and give plenty of food for thought. It is hard to get balanced opinion here about anything, as social and political commentary is often very tribal.
Please keep up the good work!
This is gold, thank you guys for sharing. I’m living in a small ski town in Patagonia and prices over here are killing us. We’re getting 3rd world services and facilities at US prices. We’re definitively moving out of the country in a couple of months. The ARS:USD rate should be 30:1 and there should be no inflation from now on for me to change my mind -not happening. We can´t afford to live here anymore.
I wrote the original emails to Colin in 2013. This piece is superb and I was actually back in BA in June for a short visit and got to re-acquaint myself with amazing stupidity – which is everyday life in Argentina.
That said, BA is pretty much a drug for me. Not for pussy or good food and drugs, but rather a unique urban vibe that I’ve not found anywhere else. Add some great friends and a real chance to acculturate if one takes the initiative.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I die there.