Venezuelans Are Paying a 100% Premium for Cash

(Bloomberg) -- Editor’s Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a new series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.

My most recent order arrived by motorcycle, a loaded, black trash bag tossed my way. “This is what’s available,” the courier said gruffly before zooming off. I nodded. There’s no begging in the bolivar business.

What he delivered was cash, 200,000 bolivars of it. I, in turn, wired 400,000 bolivars to his bank account. Why such a huge markup? Because in hyper-inflationary Venezuela, we’re all desperate for paper money, a ridiculously scarce commodity but a necessity, even for someone like me with plenty of credit cards. You need cash for gasoline, to use the metro or park your car in a garage, to buy fried fish on the beach or a cup of coffee on the street.

So this is the question that’s all over Caracas: “You got a guy?” I hear it, in dive bars and at posh dinner parties, and in line at the bank, which, invariably, is out of the desired product.

The guy, of course, is a cash dealer. My phone is filled with a half-dozen numbers. They’re cab drivers and restaurant owners and produce sellers, anyone with a bit of hustle. It’s a booming business. The 100 percent premium I paid that day isn’t unusual.

Venezuelans Are Paying a 100% Premium for Cash

For me, it’s just another of the frustrations of living in an imploding economy. Low-denomination bills—anything below 100 bolivars ($0.0005 at the black-market rate)—are often used nowadays for such things as confetti at baseball games. And the government is so broke, it can’t afford to print bigger bills fast enough. It’s a curiosity, this whole mess, almost bordering on a Yogi-ism: Hyperinflation’s rendered paper money so worthless that it’s become incredibly valuable.

The paper chase is most intense in the slums, where many people have no other means of payment. Fixers are everywhere in these neighborhoods, eager to get their hands on all the cash swirling around.

One flipper, Orlando Villarroel, told me he positions himself at a bakery check-out. One by one, he pays for customers’ items with his credit card, giving them a markdown and collecting their banknotes until he’s chased out of the place.

The shortage, I’ve noticed, is growing worse. Desperation is mounting. When I pull out enough bills to leave a decent tip or pay a valet at a restaurant, onlookers stammer, “Can you get me some?!”

Maybe. For a fee.

To contact the author of this story: Andrew Rosati in Caracas at arosati3@bloomberg.net.

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