BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Believe it, or not? That's the question of the day in Argentina, where the credibility of a new consumer price index being unveiled Thursday will be key to containing inflation and attracting investment from a world that has lost confidence in the government's numbers.
For seven years, the government has systematically underestimated inflation and thus overestimated economic growth, critics say. Even close government allies don't believe the old data anymore, demanding 2014 pay raises of more than 30 percent to keep up with inflation officially estimated at just 10 percent a year.
The new index was designed in consultation with the International Monetary Fund, which shamed Argentina last year by refusing to include government economic data in its reports. Argentines also have lost faith, feeding inflation and capital flight by trading their pesos for dollars as fast as they can.
If the new index's first monthly inflation report Thursday afternoon recognizes true living costs, President Cristina Fernandez could use it to combat spiraling inflation and stabilize the economy, said Matias Carugati, chief economist at the Management & Fit consultancy in Buenos Aires.
"This is the government's silver bullet to begin to take a more rational path and combat this evil," Carugati told The Associated Press.
If the new report acknowledges January 2014 inflation of at least 3 percent, "it would be credible and a good start. But if we keep having statistics of about 1 percent, we're going to see that they keep lying," Carugati said.
The old index almost always reported monthly inflation at less than 1 percent, even as Argentine shoppers watched their grocery prices double and triple since 2007, when political appointees changed the methodology of the National Institute of Statistics and Census. Since then, prices have risen somewhere between 70 and 140 percent higher than the government has acknowledged, said Alberto Ramos, an economist with Goldman Sachs.
The latest estimate from private economists, published Wednesday by minority lawmakers in Congress, is that January's inflation topped 4.6 percent. That's 55 percent on an annual basis, the highest in many years for Argentina and one of the highest inflation rates in the world.
Argentina has seen dangerous protests in recent months as its unions prepare for annual negotiations over pay hikes. Uprisings by provincial police officers provoked deadly looting in December before governors, complaining of guns at their heads, agreed to budget-busting increases. Street demonstrations over inflation routinely complicate life in the capital.
With the Labor Ministry poised to oversee salary talks for nearly 1,000 sectors of the economy, having reliable data "would really organize the discussion and tamp down inflationary expectations," said economist Dante Sica, who directs the abeceb.com consultancy in Buenos Aires.
The new index will track prices on a basket of 520 goods and services, including food, drinks, clothing, housing, appliances, health care, transportation, communication, recreation and education. Unlike the old one, which measured prices in metropolitan Buenos Aires, the new index aims to cover 200,000 prices across the nation.
To be trustworthy, the index needs to be based on "the prices of the majority of stores, where people shop the most," Sica added, warning that the changes will be useless if the government gets data from price-controlled products at places few Argentines have access to.
"Will it be scientific enough to appease the concerns from the IMF?" asked Alberto Bernal, head of research at BullTick Capital Markets in Miami.
"What the world wants to see is some certainty of how prices are measured," Bernal told the AP. "The whole point is that index needs to be credible. If nobody knows what the hell is being calculated it will be the stupidest thing ever. All the back and forth with IMF would be lost."
Persuading the IMF to accept its economic data is an essential step toward resolving Argentina's unpaid debts, including about $10 billion owed to the Paris Club of lending nations, which includes the United States.
Skepticism abounds in the markets of Buenos Aires, where businesses struggled to re-price their products last month after a sudden 20 percent currency devaluation sent inflationary shocks through the entire supply chain.
"The worst thing the government did was intervene in the statistics institute. It's like breaking a thermometer; you never know if you have a fever. Now they're putting out a new index. It will have a cloud of doubts over its validity," university professor Elida Repetto, 53, said as she shopped for meat.
Fernandez blamed market forces for betting that a collapse of the Argentine economy would blow away her government. Such forces have beaten Argentina before, she said: "They have blown away jobs, blown away illusions, blown away hope, blown away businesses and blown away the savings of the Argentines, which they kept for themselves."
"I'm not going to be blown away, because I'm not a witch," she joked.
Associated Press Writers Michael Warren in Buenos Aires and Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.