By Brian Winter
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - More than a decade after Argentina's epic financial collapse of 2001-02, many investors are rushing for the door once again.
From big Chinese and Brazilian companies like miner Vale SA, to small-business owners and savers, the fear of a new crisis has led to canceled investments and suitcases of cash leaving the country.
The mass exodus, which has been limited only by leftist President Cristina Fernandez's capital controls, is threatening to undermine Latin America's No. 3 economy even further by leaving it short of hard currency and new jobs.
The underlying problems range from Fernandez's hostile treatment of the private sector, to severe financial distortions such as a parallel exchange rate, to the general feeling that Argentina is due for one of the periodic spasms that have racked the country every 10 years or so going back to the 1930s.
Some say such worries are overblown, arguing that Argentina has defied doomsday predictions for the past decade, which was by some measures its best economic run since World War Two.
Yet for many, the feeling is of a gathering storm.
"The end of this story has already been written, and it ends in crisis," said Roberto Lavagna, who as economy minister from 2002 to 2005 helped create Argentina's current export-driven policy framework, and is still widely respected on Wall Street.
While everyone agrees any crisis won't be as bad as the 2001-02 meltdown - which saw nationwide riots, two presidents quit, and the economy shrink by one-fifth - it could still be enough to severely disrupt lives and business plans.
By relying on short-term fixes such as price controls and bans on Argentines buying dollars, Fernandez may just be delaying the inevitable while piling up even more problems.
"The longer they try to delay things, the worse they will be," said Lavagna, who worked for Fernandez's late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, before falling out over what he saw as the couple's increasingly anti-business agenda.
"You can't have growth without investment."
Key ministers in Fernandez's government declined to be interviewed for this story.
Following a sharp slowdown in Argentina's economy over the past year, and growing concern in places like Washington and Brasilia, Reuters recently spoke to about two dozen leading figures in industry, finance, academia and politics to try to gauge where the country is headed.
Some declined to speak on the record, citing growing efforts by Fernandez's government to intimidate its critics. Others - including Lavagna, who has become a leading opposition figure - were clearly informed by a political point of view or agenda.
Yet even among those without an ax to grind, the sense is that Argentina has lapsed into its old habit of scaring away private capital, one of the main reasons why it has steadily declined from its perch as one of the world's richest nations in the 1930s.
"It sure sounds like trouble to me," said David Rock, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of several books on Argentina's economic history.
"What they're doing right now, it can't be sustained," Rock said. "It's hard to believe it's happening again."
In truth, Argentina has been something of a financial rogue for years. Since defaulting on $100 billion in debt during the last crisis, the country has been cut off from capital markets and considered a highly risky place to do business.
Fernandez confiscated private pension funds to help pay government debts in 2008, and has nationalized some companies. Her government is widely accused of doctoring economic data, inflation runs at about 25 percent, and foreign firms are forbidden from sending profits abroad.
Until recently, though, the economy continued to grow, often at an annual pace of 8 percent or higher.
So what has changed?
First, the effect from years of high inflation has taken its toll, making Argentine industries uncompetitive at a time when prices for its key commodities like soy are falling.
And second, the major business partners the country hadn't yet alienated - Brazil and China - have also begun to turn away.
Vale's decision in March to cancel a $6 billion investment in a new potash mine was emblematic.
The company, which is publicly traded but heavily influenced by the Brazilian government, walked away because the growing gap between Argentina's official and black-market exchange rates would have forced it to shoulder costs in dollars at a level as much as 50 percent higher than it would receive profits.
Afterward, Interior Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno - Fernandez's point man on contentious economic issues - demanded a meeting with Brazilian officials. He then threatened to have Vale executives in Argentina detained unless the company reversed its decision, according to three Brazilian officials with knowledge of the conversation.
Neither Moreno nor his office responded to repeated requests for comment. Economy Minister Hernan Lorenzino also did not respond to interview requests.
The hostile treatment, plus other recent clashes, infuriated Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and led her government to "downgrade" ties with Argentina, two senior officials said. Shortly thereafter, state-run oil company Petrobras stepped up efforts to sell its assets in Argentina.
Difficulties with the Chinese have been quieter, but also troubling. The Heilongjiang Beidahuang State Farms Business Trade Group, a Chinese investment entity, had agreed to help build a range of large projects from wind farms to port improvements to railroads in Buenos Aires province.
"These have been delayed because of the political situation," said Oscar Gomez, an adviser to the group.
"Today, whatever money they have budgeted, it runs out in two months," Gomez said, citing inflation and the parallel exchange rate, among other factors. "Everything's working against Argentina. There's no investment today because there's nothing in it for anybody."
CHILL IN LOCAL INVESTMENT TOO
Chinese companies have also suspended or slowed down huge investments in shale gas and urea, a fertilizer, said Diego Guelar, a former ambassador to the United States and author of a forthcoming book about Argentina and China.
"Brazil and China were our last dynamic partners, so now what?" Guelar said. "Who will create jobs?"
The answer doesn't seem to lie with Argentine companies. A business confidence index produced by the University of Belgrano fell 4.4 percent in the first quarter compared to the year before - putting it near levels last seen during the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
Economists say the private sector likely contributed zero net jobs to the economy last year, with only the government picking up the slack - but that may have run its course, too. Unemployment rose a full percentage point in the first quarter, to 7.9 percent, a three-year high.
Some Fernandez supporters argue that robust consumer spending will be enough to sustain the economy. And it's true that, unlike the last crisis, Buenos Aires' famed steakhouses and cafes continue to bustle with customers well past midnight.
"We do have a severe problem with private investment, but that's always been an issue here," said Artemio Lopez, a political analyst. "You have speculators and unproductive capital that flee the country whenever they can."
"The solution is more controls on capital, not less," Lopez added.
Not everybody is running away - U.S. oil major Chevron Corp said last month it would invest up to $1.5 billion in shale in Argentina's south.
There are still some 500 U.S. companies in Argentina, and many are profiting and continuing to invest, according to a source close to the business community. But the same source conceded that many invest because "they have no choice" - Fernandez's capital controls prevent them from sending earnings back home.
Official data, often questionable in Argentina, suggests those controls have helped contain the damage - at least for now.
Capital flight slowed from $21.5 billion in 2011 to $3.4 billion in 2012, with a slight net inflow of $110 million in the first quarter this year, according to the central bank.
Yet other evidence suggests the pressure for money to escape is intensifying. In recent months, Fernandez has passed several new measures such as a limit on cash withdrawals using credit cards abroad, and a surcharge on purchases of airline tickets.
The demand for hard currency is such that Argentines pay a premium of 60 percent over the official exchange rate to buy dollars on the black market. Many believe that Fernandez is just trying to hold the economy together until legislative elections in October, causing many to take refuge now.
Argentines frequently tell stories in private of dollars they've stashed in safe-deposit boxes, under their mattresses, and in suitcases on trips to banking havens like Miami or neighboring Uruguay.
"Nobody wants to be the last one left," said Marcos Aguinis, an author of several bestselling political books and novels. "It's tragic, the predictability, but this is clearly falling apart once again."
Indeed, one of the most commonly heard phrases in Buenos Aires at the moment is "fin del ciclo" - the end of the cycle, a uniquely Argentine notion that the economy and often the government must regularly implode to make way for something new.
So why does that keep happening?
"I've been trying to answer that question for 50 years," said Rock, the historian. "To be honest, I still don't know."
(Additional reporting by Guido Nejamkis and Nicolas Misculin; Editing by Kieran Murray and Claudia Parsons)