Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A coin, a coin, my kingdom for a coin

As travelers, we were reliant on ATMs for currency, and the ATMs gave us big ol' bills. It was a constant struggle to break these bills and keep enough small stuff for day-to-day purchases. This was an artifact of the fact that we "importing" all of our cash, so never had any local currency flowing into our wallets.

Argentina had a strange mutation of this theme. It was not a big deal to break the equivalent of a $20 on a couple dollar purchase, but as soon as you need a coin to make change, it was a disaster. Argentina had bills as small as AR$2 pesos (about 50 cents), as well as AR$5 bills. So the real game stopper was trying to make either one peso or three pesos of change, since every other value is can be made from combination of AR$2 or AR$5 bills.

Every cashier in Argentina is well aware of this fact, even if they might not be able to state it this precisely. Resultantly, until we figured out the allowable change values, we often had cashiers politely ask to see our bills, and count out an additional AR$5 or AR$2 in order to avoid changing us AR$3 or AR$1. And if you want to feel some genuine love, give a cashier a coin to make exact change. They will smile warmly and tell you, "Perfecto!"

Contrast the Argentine daily struggle for coins to Chile. Its integral currency (pesos with no centimos), and the size of its bills (CL$1000 is the smallest bill) insure than you always have a heavy pocket full of coins. In even the smallest market, the cashier has no problem breaking a large bill and giving you as many CL$100 coins as you could ever want.

So the question is: "Why can't the central bank of Argentina print some more coins."
The New Yorker has its theories involving hording. I'm not so sure. I never had any indication of anyone hording coins. It seemed like no one had any.

The article does discuss one phenomena that I always imagined must take place. The buses, which only take coins in Buenos Aires, are a huge sink for metal money. The bus companies than turn around and sell their coins at a mark-up to businesses that need coins to make change. Ingenious and evil.

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