Barter is a type of trade in which goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods and/or services, without the use of money. It can be bilateral or multilateral, and usually exists parallel to monetary systems in most developed countries, though to a very limited extent. Barter usually replaces money as the method of exchange in times of monetary crisis, when the currency is unstable and devalued by hyperinflation.
In the past, goods were exchanged on a one-to-one basis with the intent that the value of the goods traded was of relatively equal value. Prior to the establishment of currencies, barter was the most accepted form of commerce. The equality of the value in a one-on-one barter is often an issue. In 1626 Peter Minuet traded $24 worth of beads, knives and kettles for Manhattan Island – clearly Minuet got the benefit of the bargain on that transaction.
While one-to-one bartering is still practised between individuals and businesses on an informal basis, organized barter exchanges have developed to conduct third party bartering. The barter exchange operates as a broker and bank and each participating member has an account which is debited when purchases are made, and credited when sales are made. With the removal of one-to-one bartering, concerns over unequal exchanges are reduced.
Modern trade and barter has developed into a sophisticated tool to help businesses increase their efficiencies by monetizing their unused capacities and excess inventories. The worldwide organized barter exchange and trade industry has grown to an $8 billion a year industry and is used by thousands of businesses and individuals. The advent of the internet and sophisticated relational database software programs has further advanced the barter industry's growth. Organized barter has grown throughout the world to the point now where virtually every country has a formalized barter and trade network of some kind. Complex business models based on the concept of barter are today possible since the advent of Web 2.0 technologies.
Bartering benefits companies and countries that see a mutual benefit in exchanging goods and services rather than cash, and it also enables those who are lacking "hard currency" to obtain goods and services. To make up for a lack of hard currency, Thailand's township, Amphoe Kut Chum, once issued its own local scrip called Bia Kut Chum: Bia is Thai for cowry shell, was once Baht, and is still current in metaphorical expressions. Running afoul of national currency laws, the community changed to barter coupons called Boon Kut Chum that bear a fixed value in baht, which they swap for goods and services within the community.
A trade or barter exchange is a commercial organization that provides a trading platform and bookkeeping system for its members or clients. The member companies buy and sell products and services to each other using an internal currency known as barter or trade dollars. Modern barter and trade has evolved considerably to become an effective method of increasing sales, conserving cash, moving inventory, and making use of excess production capacity for businesses around the world. Businesses in a barter earn trade credits (instead of cash) that are deposited into their account. They then have the ability to purchase goods and services from other members utilizing their trade credits – they are not obligated to purchase from who they sold to, and vice versa. The exchange plays an important role because they provide the record-keeping, brokering expertise and monthly statements to each member. Commercial exchanges make money by charging a commission on each transaction either all on the buy side, all on the sell side, or a combination of both. Transaction fees typically run between 8 and 15%.
It is estimated that over 500,000 businesses in the U.S. are involved in a barter exchange activities. There are approximately 500 commercial and corporate barter companies serving all parts of the world. There are two industry groups, the National Association of Trade Exchanges (NATE) and the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA). Both offer training and promote high ethical standards among their members. Moreover, each has created it own currency through which its member barter companies can trade. NATE's currency is the known as the BANC and IRTA's currency is called Universal Currency (UC).
Exchange systems provide new sales and higher volumes of business, conserving cash for essential expenditures, exchange of unproductive assets for valuable products or services, reduction of unit costs, and opening new outlets for excess inventory and unused capacity. Reciprocal trade finance enables a firm to buy using its incremental cost of production. So long as incremental revenue exceeds incremental cost, it is worth it for a firm to trade using a barter exchange.
There are many reasons to use a good barter exchange:
Organized barter companies also have many more benefits over conventional advertising methods since they are much more proactive. Barter members call into the exchange brokerage with things they need and the brokers match those needs with other members that can fill them.
The first exchange system was the Swiss WIR Bank. It was founded in 1934 as a result of currency shortages after the stock market crash of 1929. "WIR" is both an abbreviation of Wirtschaftsring and the word for "we" in German, reminding participants that the economic circle is also a community. Only SME can join WIR. Its purpose is to encourage participating members to put their buying power at each other's disposal and keep it circulating within their ranks, thereby providing members with additional sales volume. WIR has grown to 62,000 members, trading approximately the value of 3 billion Swiss Franc. The offering of goods and services for WIR is promoted by the fact that every official participant is obligated to accept payment in WIR for at least 30% of the first 2000 francs of the selling price, and every loan holder must amortize his/her debt by selling goods/services for WIR.
Corporate barter focuses on larger transactions, which is different from a traditional, retail oriented barter exchange. Corporate barter exchanges typically use media and advertising as leverage for their larger transactions. It entails the use of a currency unit called a "trade-credit". The trade-credit must be known and guaranteed (contract to eliminate ambiguity and risk).
While swapping is an excellent way to find and obtain items that are inexpensive, it relies upon honesty. A dishonest participant might arrange a swap, and then never complete their end of the transaction, thus getting something for nothing. This practice is called swaplifting, a pun on shoplifting. The victim's recourse is often limited to shunning the swaplifter, or taking him to small claims court.