Johannesburg, South Africa
A holiday commemorating the struggle against apartheid keeps South African financial markets closed for the day, but Charles Leishman, a gold trader wearing sweat pants, clutches his pocket-sized electronic gizmo and checks in on global currencies and commodities.
As he points to the screen, gold costs $871.35 per ounce, and a dollar is worth 8.067 South African rand.
"If I need to, I can trade telephonically. And follow up with an e-mail, so my desk knows I did the trade if I get run over as I walk out of here," he says half-jokingly in a Johannesburg suburb.
Leishman, one of South Africa's few gold bullion traders, sells the precious metal on behalf of producers such as AngloGold Ashanti mines. The price of gold has increased drastically since Leishman started working on Standard Bank's gold desk in 2000, when markets were pressured and the global stock market began to plunge.
South Africa, the world's largest gold miner, is affected more than any other country by fluctuations in the price of gold because its deep-level mines incur the highest costs. Today, the cheap U.S. dollar is causing jitters in a market already spooked by rising oil prices, a credit crunch and Iran's nuclear program.
"You have to be able to live with uncertainty, and trade," says Leishman, who saves for his children's education by driving a 12-year-old car. "Africans are generally quite resilient. [We] are constantly living in a state of fluctuation."
Leishman starts work at 9 a.m. so he can drop his 5-year-old daughter at school on the way. He returns home 11 hours later.
"I love my job. I love the markets," he says. "But it's easy for it to overflow into your normal life ... because the game is still being played. It doesn't close."
-- Special Correspondent Eva-Lotta Jansson
Shielded from the late-afternoon sun, a few jewelry salesmen lounge around outdoor tables along St. Vincent Court in downtown L.A., sipping espresso or sweet tea. Another miserable day is ending, and they are in no apparent hurry to get back to work.
Through a set of large glass doors lies the expanse of the St. Vincent Jewelry Center, one of the biggest jewelry markets in the world, with nearly 500 merchants running stalls that sprawl over 350,000 square feet. In the center of that glittering expanse, Hengameh Rashtian stands behind a low glass counter, hoping for a customer. Today she has made just one sale, a $250 diamond ring.
"And," she says with a broad smile, "I was lucky." Other merchants have sold nothing all day.
A friendly woman in her 40s with pearl earrings and stylish blond hair, Rashtian is an Iranian immigrant who started her business four years ago. At the time, St. Vincent's was bustling, with customers streaming in off Broadway, perhaps to buy wedding rings or a gift for family in Mexico.
The stall across from Rashtian's is empty and abandoned, closed last month when the woman running it went into the fabric business. Behind Rashtian is another empty counter; that business closed two months ago, and she doesn't know what happened to the owner.
She first noticed the slowdown several years ago. "At first, we thought, OK, it's summer, it's bad timing," she says. "But then it goes lower, and lower, and lower."
She blames the war in Iraq, but there is something else just as powerful in financial markets: The falling dollar has driven up the price of gold and diamonds, as well as the labor to manufacture jewelry in Italy and Asia, where much of Rashtian's merchandise is made. At the same time, the drooping economy in the United States has crimped the lives of her customers.
"Jewelry is a luxury, not a necessity," she says, "and also, the price of diamonds has gone up so much. And the gold? From three years ago to now, it jumped 250%."
Her prices range from $50 for a simple pendant to $50,000 for her largest diamond (which, she is quick to note, she doesn't keep at her stall). Most of her customers are low-income people for whom a small price increase makes a big difference.
Rashtian studied economics while earning her bachelor's degree in accounting at Tehran University. At some point, she is sure, the economy will rebound. "It can't stay like this," she says. But still, she worries. Her husband, Matthew Jamshidiniah, can't find work in construction, so he comes to the jewelry market to help her. But they need a second income.
For all that, Rashtian laughs a lot when she talks. And she sees a silver lining: People are still falling in love.
"Because, thank God," she says, "no matter what, people still have to get married with a ring."
--Los Angeles Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg
"It's incredible how cheap everything is here," says Megan Janeway, 24, as she and two fellow American women sit in a traditional confiteria, or cafe, in the upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta. "When I arrived, I didn't know the difference that existed between the peso and the dollar. It was a pleasant surprise. And now, of course, I take advantage."
The dollar is taking a thumping worldwide. South America is generally no different, with the greenback plummeting daily against currencies such as the Brazilian real and the Peruvian sol. But Argentina is a major -- some would say magical -- exception.
The government here is keen to maintain the competitiveness of exports such as beef and grain. It has kept the nation's currency undervalued, at about 3 pesos to the dollar. As Argentina continues its comeback from a 2001-02 economic meltdown, it is also experiencing a surge in tourists, students and adventuresome opportunists looking for more bang from their battered buck.
This is a city where $10 can still buy an exceptional steak dinner, wine and dessert included. A ticket to a show along Corrientes Avenue, the city's Broadway, can cost even less, as can a night of tango in one of the many clubs. Some are calling Buenos Aires the next Prague, driven by an overvalued dollar.
Throughout Recoleta, Palermo Hollywood and other trendy districts, young Americans and Europeans are seen in cafes and taking in the sights. Some come to learn Spanish. Others just want to take in the city and watch their dollars go further than most anywhere else.
"I have a lot of friends studying in New York or in Europe, and they hardly ever go out to dance, to dinner, to the movies or the theater," says Emily Batt, 20, a student at the University of North Carolina. "Our lives are very different from those of students in the United States. We can enjoy a lot more things."
--Los Angeles Times staff writer Andres D'Alessandro
The two-syllable word is unmistakable above the din of San Salvador's teeming downtown market: "El dólar! El dólar!" As in "Cuatro kilos por el dólar!" -- four kilos for a dollar -- or "Diez tomates por el dólar!" -- 10 tomatoes for a dollar.
Vendors along these traffic-choked lanes hawk everything in U.S. dollars, from disposable razors to deep-fried yucca snacks called nuegados, since El Salvador switched to the greenback seven years ago. Customers pull dollars from their pockets to pay.
But hardly anyone on either side of the transaction seems to like it much. Call it dollar disappointment -- a widespread feeling among Salvadorans that the dollar has brought them only higher prices and greater uncertainty.
"At first a lot of people saw it in a positive light," says Francisco Fuentes, who supplies toothpaste, toilet paper, packaged noodles and other products to tiny groceries inside the sprawling market and elsewhere in San Salvador. "It was the worst thing they've ever done in El Salvador."
Fuentes, 38, is fretting today, as on many days lately, and longing for the colon, the country's traditional currency.
Behind the counter of his grocery outlet, a tidy, drive-in affair that resembles a quickie oil-change shop, Fuentes worries a ballpoint pen and punches numbers into a calculator to show how the dollar has done him wrong.
The move to "dollarize" was sold by the nation's rightist government as a way to shock-proof the economy and benefit ordinary people by keeping inflation down. Although it has been good for the banking sector and lowered interest rates, many residents say dollarization brought higher prices long before the global surge in oil and food costs worsened the effect.
Fuentes, wearing jeans and a polo shirt whose bright shade of peach does little to lighten his somber demeanor, says sales have fallen so drastically that he had to sell a second store.
The problem, Fuentes and many other Salvadorans say, is that the dollar ushered in a new price structure that was out of sync with Salvadorans' earnings and what they were accustomed to paying. The price of jeans, tomatoes and other products went up and sales fell.
The cost of the Colgate toothpaste Fuentes sells to merchants has gone up fivefold, but he says he's afraid to raise his prices for fear of driving away customers.
As workers unload a fresh shipment of shampoo and soap, Fuentes says with resignation that there is probably no returning to the past. Another conversion would probably set loose a wave of price speculation that would only aggravate matters, he says.
"I yearn for the colon, but there is no going back," Fuentes says. "The reality is, we are going to stay with the dollar."
--Los Angeles Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood
Forward Operating Base Bastion, Afghanistan
For several years, merchant Faridon Rahmani has priced his carpets, jewelry, DVDs and other goods in U.S. dollars. But with the decline of the dollar, more and more customers are paying him in euros.
These days, Rahmani quotes prices in euros as often as he does in dollars. He prefers euros, he says, because the currency is so much stronger than the dollar.
"The euro is very, very good for me," Rahmani said outside the sun-baked metal storage container where he sells Afghan goods to European and American military members on this joint British-U.S. base in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.
"The dollar is too weak for me," Rahmani added, noting that 100 euros will bring him 6,000 Afghanis, the local currency, compared to 5,000 Afghanis for $100.
Many of Rahmani's customers are Europeans -- British, Danish and Swiss soldiers who spend euros. The rest are U.S. soldiers and Marines who pay in dollars.
Rahmani said the Americans are better customers -- "They buy more," he said -- but he wishes they paid in euros. He doesn't like being stuck with too many dollars, he said.
Not so long ago, he said, he priced his pirated, Chinese-made, American DVD movies (10 to a pack) at the same amount in dollars and euros. Now, he said, he has to charge $3 or 2 euros for each pack.
His customers are mostly sunburned young men, bored and far from home, who poke through his meager wares, searching for souvenirs to send home. There are Marines in the severe high-and-tight haircuts, toting heavy automatic rifles, and blond Swiss and Danes, some in baggy camouflage short pants.
The prices of all items -- among them trinkets like stuffed camels and cheap jewelry -- are negotiable, of course. But Rahmani works hard to keep the prices in euros as high as possible, letting the dollar find its own level.
Rahmani said he keeps some of his profits in an Afghan-owned bank in the U.S.
"They take dollars, of course, but they would rather get my euros," he said.
--Los Angeles Times staff writer David ZucchinoCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times