The Venezuelan government recently lopped off six zeros from its hyperinflating currency, the bolivar. The highest denomination currency note of 1 million bolivars, worth less than $0.25, was replaced by a one-bolivar note. At the same time, a 100-bolivar note, worth about $25.00, was introduced as the new highest denomination of the bolivar. The currency conversion was designed to spare the government the embarrassment of having to issue a 100-million bolivar note to enable people to purchase everyday items without having to carry around bundles of notes, given that the price of a loaf of bread had risen to 7 million old bolivars. Of course, the arbitrary scaling down of the denomination of the currency will not slow inflation, because the new currency notes can be printed just as cheaply as the old. The bolivar has already lost 73 percent of its value in 2021 alone and the IMF estimates the annual inflation rate will reach 5,500 percent by the end of 2021.
It is not surprising, then, that all but the poorest Venezuelans have abandoned the bolivar as a medium of exchange, let alone a store of value or unit of account. US dollars are the exchange medium of choice in Caracas and other large cities, while the Colombian peso dominates along the Colombian border, particularly in the regional city of San Cristobal. The Brazilian real is current along the southern border with Brazil and the euro and cryptocurrencies have also found niche uses.
What is wonderfully surprising is the spontaneous emergence of a pure gold currency in a remote region of southeastern Venezuela around the towns of Tumeremo and El Callao. The region abounds with precious metal ores and has a long history of luring prospectors and miners seeking their fortunes. Today, however, many of the larger mines are controlled by the government military, which is battling local gangs and guerillas. Despite the violence and lawlessness, jobless Venezuelans from far and wide are flooding into the area to work in thriving illegal mines in exchange for payment in gold nuggets. As a result, gold flakes, which are peeled off raw nuggets with hand tools, have become the currency of choice in the region with prices for commodities and services quoted in grams of gold. Half a gold gram buys you a one-night stay in a local hotel, while a meal for two at a Chinese restaurant and a haircut will cost you a quarter of a gram and an eighth of a gram, respectively.
The gold flakes are carried in people’s pockets—usually wrapped in the nearly worthless bolivar notes. While some shops are equipped with scales to weigh the gold flakes, most sellers and their customers have become so familiar with the flakes that they evaluate them by sight. For example, the barber and his customer who transacted for the haircut agreed that three gold flakes equaled the one-eighth gram price (approximately $5.00). Gold is also starting to penetrate the nearby cities, such as the regional capital Ciudad Bolivar, as stores in shopping malls gladly accept the gold in exchange for dollars from miners who are seeking to cash out.
For gold to become a full-blown currency that can viably compete with depreciating dollars and other foreign currencies, the raw nuggets need to be minted into convenient shapes and sizes and their weight and fineness certified by reputable firms. This means that any legal barriers to private mints must be eliminated. In addition, sales and capital gains taxes on gold must be abolished. Since it is highly unlikely that these measures will be implemented by the Maduro government, we can only cheer on the inroads made by the people’s gold flake currency.
Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor emeritus of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.
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