Small change causes big hassles in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - “We have no coins,” read posters hung all over Marcelo Bostos’ small convenience store in downtown Buenos Aires. The same signs are at the post office, the bakery, and the train ticket office.

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Although rising food prices top Argentine financial worries, it is the coin shortage that really makes people steam and has even generated a black market in coins.

Paying for candy, train fare or a spool of thread with a 20-peso ($6.25) bill in Buenos Aires is asking for a temper tantrum from the clerk. A quick stop for a snack during your commute is bound to lock you into a battle of wills with the vendor. Which one will admit to having coins to pay or make change?

Who has all the coins? Well, bus companies collect fares in coins only and have begun selling change back to business owners like Bostos for a fee.

“For every 100 pesos that you give the bus companies, they give you back only 97,” said Bostos, 38. “The reality is, there aren’t any coins because it’s a business in Argentina. There are bills, but no coins. It’s a serious situation.”

“It’s no way to run a business, having to tell customers that I can’t make change,” he said.

Authorities say there are 4.5 billion coins in circulation, enough for Argentina’s 40 million people and $210 billion economy.

The central bank says it put about 250 million new coins of all denominations into circulation this year through deliveries to big consumers like supermarkets and toll collectors. The bank says each coin-using Argentine should have between 115 and 250 coins at his or her disposal, in line with other countries in the region.

No way say Argentines, who have stories about creative ways they gather enough coins for 80 centavo ($0.25) bus fare or to buy a soda.

Some people give small bills to beggars or buskers and ask for a smaller-denomination coin in return.

Taxi driver Leonel Ferrer, 31, entrusts a 20-peso bill every morning to porters at a taxi stand who receive coins as tips.

“Later in the day, I come by and pick up coins. It requires trust, but, this way, I always have change in the taxi,” he said.

An official at the central bank told Reuters the problem comes from people hoarding coins in their ashtrays and pocketbooks.

“Influencing the issue is a cultural factor ... which is that people tend to hang onto coins in their homes and, as a result, keep them from recirculating as they ought to,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Jackie Frank