Once one of the most powerful currencies in the world, the Venezuelan bolivar is now worth so little that shopkeepers are weighing piles of it instead of counting it.
Inflation in the country is expected to reach 720 percent this year and the 100 bolivar note, the nation’s biggest bill, is only worth 5 U.S. cents on the black market.
The standard wallets have become useless because of the vast amount of cash that needs to be carried and some shopkeepers have been weighing rather than counting the money wads customer hand them.
Basic necessities require hundreds of bills to buy and shoppers have been stuffing cash into their backpacks, handbags or gym bags, in instances economists believe are indicative of “runaway inflation.”
Humberto Gonzalez, who runs a delicatessen store in Caracas, removes slices of salty white cheese from his scales and replaces them with stacks of bills taken from customers. The currency is so depreciated it’s easier to weigh it rather than count it.
“It’s sad,” Mr Gonzalez told Bloomberg. ”At this point, I think the cheese is worth more.”
“When they start weighing cash, it’s a sign of runaway inflation,” said Jesus Casique, a consulting firm director. “But Venezuelans don’t know just how bad it is because the government refuses to publish figures.”
Cash-weighing is not witnessed everywhere but is reportedly on the increase and is eerily reminiscent of the last century’s most frenzied hyperinflation cases: Post-World War I Germany, Zimbabwe ten years ago and Yugoslavia in the 1993 to 1994.
Bremmer Rodriques, who manages a bakery in the city, said his family does not know what to do with the huge number of bills each day. He said he hides the bags in his office until he has a chance to pack it up in boxes and deposit it at the bank and believes if someone looked at him, they would think he was a drug dealer.
“I feel like Pablo Escobar,” the 25-year-old baker said. “It’s a mountain of cash, every day more and more.”
Some, like 26-year-old Jose Marcano, spend hours carrying cash through unsafe neighborhoods. When Marcano can’t make it to the ATM on time, he speeds through red traffic lights because he is so afraid of getting robbed.
“Carrying this amount of cash is incredibly dangerous,” he said. “You put your life at risk.”
The devalued money means withdrawing even a small amount of cash from ATM can produce more than a fistful of bills. ATMs have to be refilled every few hours because they cannot take in so much cash, resulting in huge hold-up queues and limited number of working ATMs.
People are now seeking out electronic means to pay their bills but setting up credit card POS machines can be expensive for small businesses. Additionally, more than a third of Venezuela’s labor force is informal, meaning they work for cash only like street vendors, taxi drivers and other blue-collar service jobs.
Authorities have now allowed consumers to withdraw legal tender from grocery stores and recently, the government silently asked five currency companies to post bids for bigger bills including 500, 1000, 5000, 10,000 and maybe even a 20,000 note and make them ready in time for Christmas bonuses.
Steve Hanke, an economist at Johns Hopkins University said creating more denominations of banknotes is raising the white flag. No one wants to do it, but eventually their hand gets forced.”
Meanwhile, Venezuelans are faced with a paradox of having too much cash which is still not enough to buy anything of worth.