SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — WAGNER Piceli, 27, opens his black briefcase and takes out a gold wedding band that once belonged to his mother-in-law and her mother. He pushes it through the little window. The gold buyer weighs it and offers his price. ``It's not enough to make it to the end of the month,'' he says, wiping the nervous perspiration from his forehead. ``I'll have to sell a cruzado check to a friend or relative.'' Mr. Piceli, a portly, earnest young advertising salesman, works on commission. He stopped driving his car last week, and switched to Sao Paulo's crowded buses. This week he plans to try selling some ads to stores, themselves desperate for customers.
Brazilians are gearing up to find a place in an economy shocked March 16 by President Fernando Collor de Mello's Draconian anti-inflation plan. With $80 billion, about two-thirds of the money supply suddenly out of circulation, that economy has become unrecognizable. An economic slowdown has begun, and although the government has promised to keep it under control, no one knows how deep it will go or how long it might last.
``People are desperately trying to find cruzeiros,'' says Yoshiaki Nakano, an economist with the Pao de Acucar supermarket chain. ``It's a first step [toward rebuilding].''
The Collor plan sharply reduced liquidity to help pay the government's internal debt and bring down prices. It created a new, strong currency, the cruzeiro, and blocked individual and corporate access to most assets held in the old currency. It also increased tax revenues and cut government spending, a major factor in inflation, which last year totaled 1,765 percent.
Until the cruzeiros start circulating and multiplying throughout the economy, Brazil is a country without money. Gold miners in the Amazon reportedly traded gold for plates of food.
Though Brazil has changed in its monetary system before, this time is the most confusing of all. The Central Bank is still issuing instructions, sometimes wrong, contradictory, or unintelligible.
At Bradesco bank's Nova Central branch, the country's largest, 12,000 people reportedly lined up on the first working day of the plan, to get out what funds they could. Hundreds more phoned for information. Because the Collor plan had to be kept secret until the last moment, the Central Bank could only resolve the problems it caused as they came up. This meant, for example, making an exception only last Friday to allow retirees access to their blocked savings accounts.
Meanwhile, businesses, small and large, are quick to catch on. ``We cut prices by 50 to 60 percent,'' says Aderito dos Santos Br'as, a Portuguese immigrant who owns a padaria, Brazil's typical bakery-luncheonette combination. ``We reduced our purchases because we had no money and volume was lower.''
The padaria also limited the use of cruzado-denominated food vouchers that many companies give their employees. Business so far has been good enough to ring up the cruzeiros needed to pay the padaria's 35 employees.
Scarce funds have made bargaining necessary. ``I'll negotiate my rent with the owner of my house,'' says Jos'e Luciano Lemos Pereira, a men's clothing salesman whose commission-based wages have fallen drastically. He is planning to look for a new job, after seven years in one store. ``I have to find a solution because the children won't understand what's going on,'' says Mr. Pereira, who has already ``cut everything possible and imaginable'' from his household budget.
Some companies are laying off employees, although President Collor has pressured them not to. According to the newsweekly Veja, the Collor plan put 50,000 out of work last week.
Others have compromised. ``We had a meeting with the employees and told them we don't want to fire anyone, but that they'll have to accept wages proportional to our income,'' says J^o Cortez, an owner of the 2CVS advertising agency. Almost half of the 54 employees have been asked to stay home, to save on electricity, phone use, and office materials. ``It's not worth it for them to spend bus fare to come here and do nothing,'' says his partner, Ricardo van Steen, showing a visitor around the empty, darkened rooms.
Many corporations continue to work out their finances this week. Last week was chaotic, full of unproductive phone calls and meetings. When they could, companies blindly borrowed payroll money, with banks unable to determine an interest rate on the loans. And to pay old, cruzado-denominated debts, businesses must track down someone holding precious cruzeiros, then come to an agreement on the relative value of weak cruzados to strong cruzeiros.
Many people have little leeway to adapt. ``I already cut the price of the telephone tokens from 13 [cruzados] to 10 [cruzeiros],'' complains Janete Silva, 51, a sidewalk vendor of tokens and single cigarettes. ``I make one cruzado on this, and pay 14 for transportation every day. I haven't bought meat since last week, or greens. What is going to happen to us?'' As she speaks, a boy offers to pay for a telephone token with a bus pass. ``No, dear, I take the train, it's no good for me,'' she tells him.
Most economists agree that the Collor plan is the right medicine for the Brazilian economy. But some warn that the pain of taking it won't quickly be forgotten. ``There will be a lot of hoarding in dollars,'' says George Hegedus, a finance professor at the Get'ulio Vargas Institute. ``Nobody's going to open a savings account. Government securities are unsalable.''
Still, opinion polls show that about 80 percent of all Brazilians say the sacrifices they are making are worth it, if the government does its part, too. They recognize that inflation leads to an economy built on illusions.
``We didn't have money in the bank, we had numbers in the computer,'' sadly says Wagner Piceli. Everyone went to get the money out and all they found was numbers.''