(Adds analyst comment, foreign exchange market levels)
By Walter Bianchi
BUENOS AIRES, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Argentina’s central bank chief, Alejandro Vanoli, said on Friday the government would look to begin gradually “normalizing” its currency exchange market in 2015.
The comments were seen by analysts as a signal of gradual devaluation of the peso currency while the country gets set to elect a new president in October. They also may show the government is considering easing controls that were first imposed three years ago to stem a hemorrhaging of hard currency.
“The idea is to not levy any further restrictions and to move toward normalizing the currency market, depending on how the economy is looking,” Vanoli told local radio station Radio America.
Largely shut out of global credit markets since a massive debt default in 2002, the Argentine government for four years has relied on its reserves to help finance imports, pay debts and shore up the peso currency.
Importers and savers are restricted in how many dollars they can buy a month and there is a 35 percent tax on credit card purchases outside the country, tourist holiday packages and plane tickets.
The restrictions have fueled a rampant black market as Argentines look for channels to buy dollars to shield their savings against inflation.
“Normalization means devaluation and the convergence of any parallel exchange rates,” said Walter Molano, an analyst at U.S.-based BCP Securities.
The official peso ended at 8.5525 to the dollar on Friday, while the black market rate settled at 13.10 to the greenback, little changed.
Alejo Costa of Buenos Aires-based investment bank Puente said Vanoli’s comments were aimed at calming voters ahead of next year’s presidential election, and should be “taken with a grain of salt”.
“They might gradually increase how much (in U.S. dollars) you can acquire for savings purposes,” he said. “Increasing that limit could be a popular measure.”
Costa said he did not expect any sweeping measures would lift restrictions on individuals transferring money abroad or companies transferring profits abroad.
The controls have also curbed investment by foreigners who distrust President Cristina Fernandez’s heavy-handed interventionist policies.
Reserves fell to an eight-year low of $26.9 billion in March but have since risen to $30.8 billion, roughly where they started the year, with the help of a Chinese loan, grain revenues and a tightening of controls. (Reporting by Walter Bianchi; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Galloway)