By Eliana Raszewski, Jorgelina do Rosario and Rodrigo Campos
BUENOS AIRES/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Luis Caputo was once nicknamed the “Messi of finance” for reopening Argentina’s access to credit markets after lengthy negotiations with debt holdouts. He now faces a World Cup-sized challenge to fix the South American country’s worst economic crisis in decades.
Caputo, 58, a sports-loving former finance minister and central banker, will take the reins of Argentina’s economy ministry on Sunday, tasked with taming triple-digit inflation, rebuilding reserves deep in the red, and battling a recession.
The market-friendly pick will also need to balance the demands of his new boss, incoming libertarian President Javier Milei, whose campaign pledges included shutting the central bank and dollarizing the economy.
Those radical policies seemed worth betting on for many voters, as inflation heads towards 150% and two-fifths of the population live in poverty. Meanwhile, a debt time-bomb with bondholders and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is ticking away.
“The situation is very delicate,” said Jose Echague, head of strategy at local firm Consultatio, which runs a $400 million mutual fund. The challenges would be much tougher than in 2015 when Caputo ran the finance portfolio, he said – no matter who was on the team.
“Even if you have Messi and Maradona together on the same team, success is not guaranteed,” he said, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the country’s two soccer icons, the late Diego Maradona and recent World Cup winner Lionel Messi.
Caputo, a father of six, has had an auspicious start. His appointment has already buoyed local markets, where investors are hopeful he will act as a brake on Milei’s more extreme ideas and bring orthodox economic policies.
“It signals a less radical approach in terms of dollarization,” said Robert Simpson, co-head of emerging markets debt at Pictet Asset Management in London, which holds Argentine sovereign bonds.
In a May report for his former consultancy Anker, Caputo’s team said dollarization was “tough to implement” but not impossible, though argued that the “backbone” of Argentina’s issues was its fiscal deficit.
A CLEAN SLATE WITH THE IMF?
Caputo previously worked at lenders JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank.
He was finance minister from 2015 to 2017 and later central bank president in the government of conservative former President Mauricio Macri.
After settling a multi-year debt battle with creditors in 2016, he helped raise some $3 billion in 2017 selling a 100-year bond. A signal of bullishness at the time, it has since burned many creditors as inflation and interest rates soared and bonds sunk into distressed territory.
“He was the one who managed to obtain financing for the fiscal deficit,” said Camilo Tiscornia, director of C&T Asesores Economicos and a former central bank official.
This time around that may prove harder, with Argentina even more tightly locked out of financial markets, an estimated $10 billion hole in net foreign currency reserves, and an array of currency controls warping the foreign exchange market.
Caputo also helped negotiate a 2018 IMF deal that rose to $57 billion. That eventually failed and was replaced by the current one.
Alejandro Werner, who led talks as the then-IMF Western Hemisphere director with Caputo at the time, said that both sides would look to start with a clean slate to help revive the program, the IMF’s largest by far worldwide.
“I think the Fund will start the relationship with him from scratch,” said Werner, now director of the Georgetown Americas Institute. “The past won’t influence things.”
A former government official who worked closely with Caputo when he was finance minister said he was “straightforward” and a good listener, often surrounded by his core team of confidants, including Santiago Bausili, set to become the governor of the country’s central bank.
Caputo’s priorities will be finalizing his economic team and having a strong economic policy adviser to balance his own finance focus, the official added.
The person, who asked not to be named, said Caputo was “hooked” on sports and while at the finance ministry would often ensure meetings finished on time to make time to see his family.
“Sometimes there were meetings on Fridays at the last minute and he would say that he wanted to finish so he could go see his children,” he said. “He’s a serious type but not prickly.”
(Reporting by Eliana Raszewski, Jorgelina do Rosario and Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)