Inside the world's most annoying economic crisis.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 3 2008 6:58 AM

Yes, We Have No Monedas!

Inside the world's most annoying economic crisis.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

It was no surprise that the cab driver tried to rip us off. We're in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after all, and we'd made the rookie error of requesting a vague destination instead of giving a precise address—naturally he interpreted this as a license to take us from La Boca to the Plaza de Mayo by way of southern Nicaragua. What we hadn't expected was the predicament the driver found himself in when it came time to pay. The fare had come to 14 pesos and 6 centavos. I proffered a 20-peso note (worth about $6.70), and he handed back 50 centavos, suggesting that I was going to be shorted 44 centavos. Then he realized that continuing on this course would require him to give me two 2-peso notes and a 1-peso coin. He sighed dramatically and gave me three 2-peso notes instead. Factoring in the 50 centavos he had already handed over, this effectively reduced the fare to 13.50 pesos, which, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, is actually more than 14.50 pesos.

Welcome to the world's strangest economic crisis. Argentina in general—and Buenos Aires in particular—is presently in the grip of a moneda, or coin, shortage. Everywhere you look, there are signs reading, "NO HAY MONEDAS." As a result, vendors here are more likely to decline to sell you something than to cough up any of their increasingly precious coins in change. I've tried to buy a 2-peso candy bar with a 5-peso note only to be refused, suggesting that the 2-peso sale is worth less to the vendor than the 1-peso coin he would be forced to give me in change. When my wife went to buy a 10-trip subway pass, which retails for 9 pesos, she offered a 20-peso note and received 12 pesos in bills as change. This is commonplace—a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. It's taken for granted that the peso coin is more valuable than the 2-peso note.

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No one can say what's causing this absurd situation. The government accuses Argentines of hoarding coins, which is true, at least to some extent. When even the most insignificant purchase requires the same order of planning and precision as a long-range missile strike, you can hardly blame people for keeping a jar of monedas safe at home. The people, in turn, fault the government for not minting enough coins. In fact, the nation's central bank has produced a record number of monedas this year, and the problem has gotten even worse. Everyone blames the bus companies, whose buses accept only monedas. (Buenos Aires' 140-plus bus routes are run by a number of separate, private companies.) These companies, exploiting a loophole in the law, run side businesses that will exchange clients' bills for monedas for a 3 percent service fee. This is legal, but the business community also routinely complains of being forced into the clutches of a thriving moneda black market—run by the local mob, or the bus companies, or both—in which coins sell for a premium of between 5 percent and 10 percent. The bus companies steadfastly deny any involvement in this racket, but their claims were undercut by the discovery of a hoard of 13 million coins, amounting to 5 million pesos, in one company's warehouse this October.

Those coins were confiscated, but the 5 million pesos were returned to the company—in bills—which could be seen as a fine of sorts. The government has also passed laws requiring banks to provide customers with 100 pesos' worth of change on demand. (The banks ignored this because, they said, their precious monedas would then wind up on the black market.) The government recently lowered that figure to 20 pesos (which the banks still ignore) and demanded that the bus lines adopt a pass system, like the subway's, to keep more change in circulation. (All this did was create a stalemate over who would pay for the new equipment.)

The history of Argentina in the last 100 years is a story of great potential overwhelmed by a genius for acts of pointless economic self-destruction, but even for the Argentines, this is an exasperating state of affairs. The economy is still growing at a robust clip of around 8 percent year over year, but out-of-control inflation, estimated by independent analysts to be around 25 percent, has effectively devalued the currency, making it ironic that coins have become such an obsession. But an obsession they are, worthy of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges' story "The Zahir," about a man driven mad by contemplating a single coin.

Nowadays, without exact change, porteñosalso spend their days haunted by the specter of metal money. They are casually shortchanged by waiters or pushed to buy more produce in order to bring the total closer to a figure that won't require the vendor to provide change. People with a keen strategic sense maintain a well-diversified hoard of coins and painstakingly build alliances with local shopkeepers or bank tellers, conspicuously proffering coins for one purchase or deposit in the hopes of being indulged when they're short of change at some point in the future. Street musicians, like one we talked to in the San Telmo neighborhood, have to preface their performances by announcing that they have change, or they risk starving to death. Subway employees are occasionally forced to wave commuters through because they are out of coins.

Stranger still, change mania doesn't end at coins. The moneda shortage has produced a rising disinclination to provide change at all, even in bill form, at least not without histrionic sighs and eye-rolling. Last night, for instance, in a very crowded bar, I handed the waitress a 100-peso note to pay a 20-peso bill, and I was made to wait 30 minutes for change. The 2-peso note is thrown around with a contemptuous disregard usually reserved for metal money, at least in countries where less money isn't occasionally worth more than more money. But 5s and 10s are harder to come by, because they're actually worth something. In many cases, they're more worth more than 20s, because you can buy things with them, which isn't always true with a 20. In some cases, 5s and 10s are effectively worth more than 100s—which, unless you want to take out the equivalent of $20 at a time, are pretty much the only bills ATMs here dispense. Save for large purchases, 100-peso notes are functionally useless—imagine trying to trade a bar of platinum bullion for a sandwich and a coffee. In several instances, I've found myself buying an expensive lunch, costing, say, 60 pesos, just to break a 100 into more useful constituent parts so I can buy something I need, like beer.

Until someone figures out how to solve the crisis, money, at least money of a certain form, will remain like the painted lanes on the grand chaotic avenues of Buenos Aires: merely a set of loose guidelines to be interpreted by the individual, depending on the circumstances. It's exasperating, but there are signs of hope. Every once in a while, something happens that suggests the cosmos has decided to intervene and even things out. Last week, at the ferry terminal, I handed a cashier a 10-peso note for a 10.50 tab. He just shrugged and took it without a word of complaint. Not without a twinge of guilt, I wordlessly returned a precious 50-centavo coin to my hoard. A hoard I plan to release, in one spectacular all-moneda purchase, the day I leave the country. Perhaps from a balcony, like Eva Perón.

Joe Keohane is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Portfolio, the New York Times Book Review, and Boston magazine. He intends to convert his fee for this article into Argentine peso coins and get into a business with growth prospects.

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