Argentina's Approach To Inflation: Ditch The Peso, Hoard U.S. Dollars | KUOW News and Information

Argentina's Approach To Inflation: Ditch The Peso, Hoard U.S. Dollars

Dec 16, 2014
Originally published on January 4, 2015 1:10 pm

Kelly Brenner ushers in guests at the Adentro Dinner Club. This is a "​puertas cerradas"​ restaurant — meaning behind closed doors. It's a culinary movement where people cook for paying guests in their homes. Adentro is the most well-reviewed in Buenos Aires​.

​Brenner, who is originally from Boulder, Colo., acts as the host, and her Argentine fiance, Gabriel Aguallo, does the cooking, focusing on grilled meat.

​On a recent evening, visitors gasped with pleasure at the beautifully set dinner table before they were ushered up for cocktails on a roof terrace festooned with lights. Despite the success of the venture, though, the pair say they have been struggling.

​"​Tourists would call and want to make a reservation for two months in advance, but we couldn't take that reservation because we couldn't tell them how much it was gonna cost in two months​," she says.

​​The problem is ​inflation​. ​

​It's been ​ravaging Argentina's economy. Government figures are considered highly suspect, and many private economists estimate that inflation ​is running at around 40 percent this year.

Prices rise at a dizzying rate, Brenner says. Some restaurants in Argentina only have their menus on a chalkboard because it's too expensive to print new ones every month with the new, higher prices.

She ​says she just couldn't run her business relying on the local currency.

​"​We've just started, at the beginning of this month, charging in dollars instead of charging in pesos, the local currency, because it was too chaotic​," she says.

A Long Affair With The Dollar

Argentina has had a long love affair with the U.S. dollar — mainly because its economy has historically been so bumpy.

​"People go to the dollar basically to preserve the value of their purchasing power, to hedge against inflation​," explains ​Alan Cibils, the chairman of the political economy department of the National University of General Sarmiento.

Because a peso will buy less and less each day​, people put their money in more stable dollars.

But getting those dollars has become increasingly difficult. Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001 and ​chose to default again this past summer so has been locked out of international markets where it could pay on credit. It also needs dollars to pay for things. The way it's been getting them is by preventing dollars from leaving the country with tough currency controls.

​The government has even put currency-sniffing dogs at border crossings to try to prevent capital flight. ​

Which leads to scenes like this: I'm buying a ferry ticket inside Argentina and I'm being told I can't pay in pesos, I have to pay in dollars, or with my ​U.S. credit card.

​The ticket seller tells me​ the government issued a decree that all foreigners have to pay for their travel in "hard currency​."​

A Flourishing Black Market

Argentina now has a dual currency system. At the official rate, one dollar is about 8.5 pesos.

​A​nd then you have the so-called blue-dollar rate — which is actually the black market rate of about 13 pesos to the dollar.

Which brings us back to the sharing economy. ​Kelly Brenner can charge in dollars because most of her clients are tourists.

Airbnb, a network of people who rent out their homes for cash, has become a huge ​hit in Argentina. It has the added benefit that the homeowner can charge and get paid in dollars.

According to Airbnb​, there are now 8,500 active Argentine properties on the site. That's a 70 percent jump from last year. It's one of its fastest-growing markets in Latin America, according to the company.

​Back at the Adentro Dinner Club, Kelly Brenner says it really is a tiny fraction of the population who has regular access to foreign currency, though some estimates say Argentines love to hoard dollars so much that they hold 1 of every 15 dollars in the world.

Brenner jokes that the three national pastimes are "soccer and malbec and looking for dollars.​"

​Still, the vast majority of Argentines are paid in pesos and have to deal with inflation. She says she's lucky, and she wishes there was a strong national currency.

​"But we don't want to raise the prices, we want to keep it somewhat stable​," she says. ​

And that means ​ditching the peso and charging dollars.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Argentina, even though the national currency is the peso, the American dollar is actually king. With the country's economy tanking, everyone who can is trying to put money into the greenback. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently traveled to Buenos Aires and brings us the story on how the sharing economy has become one way to do that.

KELLY BRENNER: Hola.

EVE: Hola.

BRENNER: Hi. Here for dinner?

EVE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes.

BRENNER: Come on in.

EVE: I'm Eve.

BRENNER: Nice to meet you. I'm Kelly.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Kelly Brenner ushers in some of her guests at the Adentro Dinner Club. This is a puertas cerradas restaurant, meaning behind closed doors. It's a culinary movement where people cook for paying guests inside their homes. Adentro is the most well-reviewed in Buenos Aires. And Kelly, who's originally from Boulder, Colorado, acts as the host, and her Argentine fiance, Gabriel Aguallo, does the cooking, focusing on grilled meat.

BRENNER: And this is where we're going to be eating eventually.

EVE: Oh, great. This is beautiful.

BRENNER: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Despite the success of the venture, the pair, she tells me, have been struggling.

BRENNER: Tourists come and they're planning their vacation. They want a reservation for two months from now, and we couldn't take that reservation because we couldn't tell them how much it was going to cost in two months.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inflation is ravaging Argentina's economy. According to some estimates, it's running at 40 percent a year. Compare that to the U.S., where inflation is only 1.7 percent a year. Prices rise at a dizzying rate, she says. She just couldn't run her business relying on the local currency. So finally, she did this...

BRENNER: We've actually just switched at the beginning of this month to charging in dollars as opposed to pesos after charging in the local currency because it was too chaotic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here is a brief economics lesson.

ALAN CIBILS: People basically go to the dollar as a way to preserve the value of their purchasing power to hedge against inflation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Alan Cibils, the chair of the political economy department of the National University of General Sarmiento. In Argentina, because a peso will buy you less and less each day, people put their money in dollars, which is a stable currency. Getting dollars, though, has become increasingly difficult. Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001 and again this past summer. So it's been locked out of the international markets where it can pay on credit. So it needs dollars to pay for things. The way it's been getting them is preventing dollars from leaving the country, Draconian currency controls, which leads to scenes like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

I'm buying a ferry ticket, and I'm being told I have to pay in dollars or with my U.S. credit card. I'm told the government issued a decree that all foreigners have to pay for their travel in hard currency. Argentina now has a dual currency system. You have the official rate at which you can exchange dollars - $1 is about 8 and a half pesos - and then you have what is called the blue dollar rate, or the black market rate, which is about 13 pesos to the dollar.

It's a beautiful spring afternoon in Buenos Aires, and I am walking down La Avenida Florida, which is a pedestrian street. But instead of the strains of tango, what I'm hearing is this...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People are asking me if I want to change my dollars. The hunt for the dollars is big business here in Argentina these days.

UNIDENTIFIED LANDLORD: Well, it's rented most of the time, 80 percent of the days.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which brings us back to the sharing economy. That's an Airbnb landlord. He doesn't want his name used because of the government restrictions on dollar transactions.

LANDLORD: This apartment has a very - I think it's the attraction, it's the view of the neighborhood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Airbnb, where you rent your home for cash, has become a huge, global success. In Argentina, though, it has an added benefit. You charge and get paid in dollars.

LANDLORD: Very, very useful this extra money and the way I get it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: According to Airbnb there are now 8,500 active Argentine properties on the site. That's a 70 percent jump from last year. It's one of their fastest-growing markets in Latin America according to the company.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the Adentro Dinner Club, Kelly Brenner says it's really a tiny fraction of the population who has regular access to foreign currency like her. Though some estimates say that Argentineans love to hoard dollars so much that they hold one of every 15 dollars in the world. Brenner jokes the three national pastimes are...

BRENNER: Soccer and Malbec and looking for dollars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still the majority of Argentineans are paid in pesos, and they have to deal with the devastating inflation. She says she's lucky, and she wishes there was a strong national currency, but...

BRENNER: We don't want to raise the prices. We don't. We want to try and keep it somewhat stable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that means charging dollars. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.