x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pack rats have all the skills to survive an economic meltdown

While frowned on by governments, hoarding is nevertheless a useful skill for the economically desperate.

As the Greeks riot over their right to keep their hands in German pockets, they might take a few lessons from others who have protected their personal wealth from economic crisis.

Zimbabweans have lived through inflation that attached so many zeros to their currency that the Zimdollars in the pocket of an ordinary citizen would have the same face value as the entire US deficit.

The first rule of surviving economic chaos is to hoard. Zimbabweans have become adept at storing anything that has monetary value. A friend of mine, who lives in the capital, Harare, for example, stockpiles empty soda bottles. During the height of the inflation meltdown, local bottling plants could produce cheap fizzy drinks, but the acute shortage of foreign currency meant they could not import glass containers.

My friend, a trained economist, spent several weeks trolling through garbage bins behind restaurants and other establishments. By the time the bottle shortage had become acute enough for soda producers to begin paying US$1 (Dh3.67) a bottle, he had about 10,000 of them.

Hoarding is not simply a strategy to turn stuff into cash; it also becomes a parallel currency. Need to see a doctor? About five litres of petrol should cover the cost of a consultation. Your physician will solemnly accept your plastic bottle of go-juice and later, probably exchange it for a side of beef with his local butcher. And should you need medication, a pocket of potatoes will secure a box of aspirin from your pharmacist.

Everyone gets in on the act. At a barbecue, the ladies will retire to the kitchen, to talk not of their kids; instead, they will broker deals that involve disposable nappies, tinned food and hard currency.

One middle-class housewife I met had already spent several stretches in prison for trading foreign currency on the black market. She had no intention of stopping. Time in prison, was, she said, "the cost of doing business".

The black-market economy is both a blessing and a curse to those who thrive on it. It's possible to become very wealthy by making sure those with the right kind of currency have what they want. On the other hand, a task as simple as buying a bar of soap can take an entire afternoon to transact.

Hoarding, and the resultant black market, is not restricted to failed economies. In Saudi Arabia, a brisk underground business among expatriates, called "trading trunks", is thriving. Returning foreigners bring in suitcases of goods not easily come by in the country, which they then use for barter. One recently published estimate puts the Saudi black market at $87 million a year.

In the UK, a pensioner has defied an EU ban on incandescent lighting by hoarding more than 1,000 traditional light bulbs - enough to see her "into the grave". In Germany, too, stockpiles of these things are now finding their way onto eBay, where they are doing brisk trade.

And in Vietnam, a country with high economic growth but also soaring inflation of more than 20 per cent a year, gold hoarding has become the No 1 strategy to protect personal savings. The Vietnamese have about $45 billion in physical gold stashed under their mattresses, which accounts for almost half the country's GDP.

Not all hoarders get it right. I know of at least one family living in rural South Africa who are still eating through tinned produce they saved for the Y2K event - or non-event as it turned out.

Hoarding is, of course, frowned on by governments, who do not like what Zimbabweans euphemistically call the "parallel economy" existing beyond their control. But banning what is a basic survival strategy is next to impossible.

So basic a strategy, in fact, that big business and even governments indulge themselves in it, except we usually call it speculation. Last year, the British commodities trader, Anthony Ward, upset the global cocoa industry by spending $1bn on the chocolate bean, giving him control of almost the entire European supply. This allowed him to influence prices and make a tidy profit, to the annoyance of companies such as Cadbury's and Mars.

Clearly, the Greeks have already begun taking these lessons to heart. Over the past year, they have withdrawn as much as €40bn (Dh213bn) from banks. This is a drain the Greek financial system cannot afford right now. But until the issue of the economy is settled, expect the Greeks to hoard like there is no tomorrow. Which, for them, there may well not be.

Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.