December 6, 2008

Hoarding - Coin "Shortage" in Buenos Aires

An amazing story about the dynamics of hoarding coins in Argentina is presented by Joe Keohane in The Slate: (hat tip to Paul Kedrosky)
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.

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. (Read more)
When everybody does something in anticipation of others doing the same, things can sometimes escalate out of hands in a completely uncontrolled way. If everybody would stop the adverse behaviour all at once, things would rapidly come back to normal. But how could such a coordinated action be achieved?

Hoarding is a phenomenon that is going to be a hot topic in the coming decades of resource scarcity. It is a good research subject for economists, sociologists and anthropologists. Too bad I'm an engineer myself.

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