A Ph.D. in Monetary Catastrophe

Stocks down again yesterday. The Dow slipping 139 points. Gold down slightly.

Gold has fallen so hard so fast we can’t help but feel sorry for the losers. But who were they? Estimates of the total loss go upward from \$1 trillion. Who has that kind of money to lose?

Who lost it? And whom did they owe money to?

We don’t know. It could be nothing more than a regular pullback in an overextended, otherwise healthy bull market. We’ll just wait and see… along with everyone else.

So let’s change the subject…

One of the things that vexes just about everyone in Argentina is money. The value of the peso changes rapidly. There is the official rate. And there is the unofficial rate. Nobody knows what a peso is worth. Many people – including your humble editor – have to do some pretty serious calculating. The parts of his brain that do math must be swelling from overexertion.

“We need gas for the truck,” said Elizabeth yesterday.

“Well, I don’t have any more peso cash. Let’s put it on a credit card.”

“They don’t take credit cards. Cash only.”

“Then let’s pay with dollars.”

“Don’t be silly. That would cost us 50% more. He won’t give us a good rate.”

“Then let’s get some pesos at the ATM.”

“That’s just as bad… we’ll get the official rate.”

Let’s see: We want to pay in pesos, but only if we get the pesos at the unofficial rate. Otherwise, it’s better to pay in dollars, but only if the person on the other side will take the dollars at the “blue” or free-market rate.

Usually, you end up somewhere in between. If you try to bring money into the country, the government insists you trade it on the official market. But you can still work out trades at the “blue” rate – either by bringing physical cash into the country or by working with an unofficial money changer.

The money changers buy bonds for you in Miami. Then they sell the bonds in Buenos Aires. The market for the bonds should be about the same in both cities. The money changer is happy to have his dollars. You are happy to have pesos that you can spend – or in our case, pay our farmhands and farm expenses.

It is always a pleasure to visit Argentina. It is a country where economic disaster stories are daily life… where economists’ daffy theories are government policy… and where everyday citizens have to figure out how to deal with a monetary system that is half-mad… and half merely incompetent.

When we are here, we need to spend pesos… especially out in the country, where people’s math skills are not as well developed as they are in Buenos Aires. But any serious purchase – say, if you’re buying an apartment – requires dollars… either on top of the table or underneath it. So you have to be prepared.

Most people want dollars. But they can’t take them. Because the Argentine feds will ask a lot of questions. If a merchant takes dollars at the unofficial rate, the feds will give him a hard time.

That leaves buyers and sellers of dollars getting together in dark “caves.” Dow Jones reports:

Argentina’s foreign-exchange market is going underground. As the government restricts access to foreign currencies, Argentines seeking hard-to-get dollars have been pushed into cuevas, or caves – clandestine operations where customers pay dearly to exchange pesos for greenbacks.

Buying dollars for savings is banned, and authorities make only small amounts of foreign currency available for travel abroad. Travelers must submit an online request to the national tax authority just days before leaving, and they usually receive approval for much less than they requested.

Businesses need government approval to import equipment and materials at the cheap official exchange rate. The national tax agency has even posted dollar-sniffing dogs at border crossings to catch those traveling with undeclared currency.

A visit to Argentina is like taking a Ph.D. in monetary catastrophe and economic mismanagement. It reminds us how politicians can really make a mess of an economy when they put their minds to it.