WSJ: Argentina Short on Change

Argentina is struggling with a crisis of it’s own — no spare change :

Why the shortage? Argentina’s central bank blames it on “speculators,” meaning everyone from ordinary citizens, who stockpile coins, to Maco, the private cash-transport company (think of Brinks) that repackages change gathered from bus companies to resell at an 8% premium. But those explanations ring false. “Black marketeering” would not exist if coins were easy to get in the first place. After all, Argentines could just as easily hoard razor blades or matchbooks. Yet there’s no shortage of those. What’s so special about coins?

The answer is that coins are supplied by the government alone. “Put the federal government in charge of the Sahara desert,” Milton Friedman said, “and in five years there’d be a sand shortage.” If Argentina wants to end the coin shortage, it ought to give up its monopoly.

Crazy? Not if history is the guide. Over two centuries ago, Great Britain faced a coin shortage more severe than Argentina’s — so severe that it threatened to stop British industrialization in its tracks. People struggled to get coins for everyday use. The average worker was lucky to make 10 shillings a week, while the smallest banknotes were for 10 times as much. So the coin shortage even prevented factories from paying wages.

The article goes into the history of private firms issuing their own coinage or script as a solution. Hard to imagine this sort of crisis in an era of digital money, though.

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