The Miami Herald
January 20, 2002

Argentines' mortgage loans swelling beyond calculation


 BUENOS AIRES -- The numbers are too daunting to tally, a mortgage so high that Adriana Fernández just can't pay. She won't even bother to do the math.

 Fernández purchased a three-bedroom condo five months ago for $145,000, taking out a $100,000 mortgage. But new banking rules and the devaluation of the Argentine peso mean that her mortgage just shot up by nearly $50,000.

 She's among the millions of Argentines suffering from the everyday consequences of a nation's financial collapse. The president talks about it every day. But people such as Fernández wonder whether politicians are thinking about ordinary people and the real effects of a crisis that has plunged many Argentines into financial desperation.

 ``I may look calm, but I'm nervous,'' said Fernández, a real estate broker. ``Five months ago I took out a 15-year loan, and now I'm told I have to pay for five more years.
 The reality is I won't pay more than I borrowed -- I don't have the money.

 ``Let them foreclose.''

 After fours years of recession, Argentina's economy collapsed last month. The nation defaulted on its $141 billion foreign debt. So much capital flew out of the country that the government imposed tough banking restrictions that keep Argentines from getting to the bulk of their cash.

 Two weeks ago, the government decided to devalue the peso after 10 years of stability, during which the peso was pegged one-to-one to the dollar. As a result, people who had mortgages of $100,000 or more now have to pay back their loans in pesos at the official 1.4 rate. Smaller mortgages were unchanged.

 The U.S.-style, 30-year mortgage is unheard of in Latin America, where it's customary to buy property by making a whopping down payment and taking out a relatively short-term loan. To help ease the blow, interest rates were cut 33 percent. But to many borrowers the math doesn't add up.

 ``It's impossible to calculate,'' Fernández said. ``And what's worse is that home sales are way down, so I can't pay the normal mortgage -- forget the higher one.''

 According to central bank figures, a person who borrowed $100,000 over 10 years at 18 percent interest -- a rate that is not uncommon -- would now have a mortgage that is 24 months longer and monthly payments that are $44 higher. The extension alone adds nearly $44,000 to the tab.

 Thousands of homeowners and their real estate brokers took to the streets last week in protest. By week's end, they were joined by all sorts of other protesters --
 healthcare workers, pilots, the unemployed -- shouting and banging pots in fury and frustration over government remedies they detest.

 ``It's crazy!'' said Fernando Guitou, an estate manager. ``We're all on the hook, and there's no way out.''


 Guitou manages the estate of an 86-year-old widow, who under new rules cannot gain access to her $300,000 certificate of deposit until September 2003, when she'll begin getting two years of monthly installments.

 ``I'm looking at this chart the government handed out, and according to this, she'll never get her money,'' he said. ``She tells me: `Four years? I'll be dead.'

 ``I call it `virtual money.' ''

 No one at the Economics Ministry would agree to speak publicly about the problems many homeowners face. One official who asked not to be named scoffed at the suggestion mortgage holders are suffering, saying demands to repay home loans under the original terms were unlikely to be met.

 That said, she acknowledged that the rules are changing daily.


 ``It's done,'' the official said. ``We lowered the interest and extended the terms, so it does not wind up being so much. People in Argentina complain about everything. Argentines love to complain. It isn't so bad.''

 The Argentine Bankers Association referred questions to a spokesman who did not return calls.

 ``The only way out of this is to leave the country,'' said Juan Bliche, who owns the small realty business where Fernández works. He hasn't sold a house since November.

 ``The politicians don't know what to do with their own lives, never mind ours.''

                                   © 2002