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Where are Argentina's coins?

A serious shortage of coins in Argentina causes problems for consumers and merchants.

The shortage might have been precipitated by the rise in commodity prices in the last few years, said Dardo Ferrer, chief economist at the Market Foundation. There have been reports of people inside Argentina and across its borders melting coins for their metal, which became worth more than coins's face value when the price of raw materials rose.

But even high-rollers who manage to avoid small change face another perennial problem: counterfeit bills. Argentina’s economy is, in Ferrer’s words, a “propitious climate” for banknote forgery. Compared to most of its neighbors, Argentina has enough money going around to support this moderately high-tech crime, but not enough to combat it with all the security measures that richer countries have.

The omnipresence of counterfeit bills here is almost as apparent as the absence of coins. The same small business owners that refuse to give change scrutinize all bills over 20 pesos, rubbing them and tilting them and holding them up to the light, sometimes even under an ultra-violet lamp. New arrivals at the international airport receive leaflets about how to spot fake banknotes.

“Everyone I'd spoken to about Buenos Aires added an aside about keeping an eye out for bogus notes,” said U.S. citizen Season Butler on a visit to Buenos Aires from her home in London. But she never thought to check what she got from an ATM at a large bank in a posh section of town. She only discovered later that she had gotten not one but two false bills from the machine, leaving her stuck with 150 non-pesos — about 40 non-dollars — and no recourse.

“Generally, counterfeit money circulates through institutional routes,” Ferrer said . “There are very weak controls in the banks. Counterfeit notes are practically permitted.”

Which leaves peso users between a rock and a hard place — or, more concretely, between fake paper and no metal at all.

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