Complementary Currencies/BoK EN - Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS)
LETS (Local Exchange Trading System or Local Employment and Trading System) is the running of a bookkeeping system intended for ordinary citizens and the economically excluded. Douthwaite and Wagman give a clear description of what LETS is: “(…) the common feature in all LETS is that members trade with each other using a monetary unit of their own devising and the system’s organizers keep records of all transactions, usually on a computer, so that it is possible to spot members who are taking more value out of the system than they are putting in” (1999:17). LETS logically have many similarities with barter. However, whereas barter is essentially a commercial organization and intended for businesses only, LETS is an association intended for ordinary citizens and usually voluntarily run by active community members on a not-for profit basis (Greco 2001: 89). Barter can thus be perceived a business to business (B2B) solution, whereas LETS is a consumer to consumer (C2C) solution.
LETS are designed to strengthen the local economy and to empower the community (members) simultaneously (Seyfang 2002: 3). LETS reinforce the economy by addressing two failures of the mainstream monetary system; it provides an abundant medium of exchange and it creates a currency that cannot leave the area (Seyfang 2004: 7). By exchanging goods and services with local currency, members (theoretically) save on the expenditure of official currencies increasing purchasing power. LETS currency is at the same time abundant as credit is simply created with every transaction. With LETS, credit is never in short supply. Especially in the absence of official currency within a, region, town, district or city, it is believed that LETS initiatives will revitalize local economic activity.
By increasing personal economic relations, improved cohesion among LETS members and a sense of community is expected. Besides, a LETS mainly attracts people that in the mainstream economy are excluded from participation (e.g. the unemployed). LETS credit enables people on the margins of society to offer goods and services that are not valued in the mainstream market economy. Becoming economically active they consequently have an opportunity to reconnect to their communities. Additionally, it enables them to get access to products and services they otherwise would not have.
Support Medium In a LETS a bookkeeper simply keeps track of all the transactions taking place among its members. Hence, no paper and coins carrying value are involved. All participants start an account with a balance of zero. An online platform contains the existing wants and offers within the LETS. Afterwards, two members initiate a transaction. The parties in a transaction negotiate the price as they ordinarily would for a cash transaction (Greco 2001: 90). Traditionally, the payment is made using cheques, which are send to the bookkeeper. Alternatively the transaction is reported to the bookkeeper by mobile phone or e-mail. Nowadays, transactions often take place over the internet. The account of the buyer is subsequently debited and the account of the seller is credited by the corresponding amount. That means that the total of credit within the LETS (positive balances minus negative balances) always adds up to zero. As opposed to ordinary currency, LETS currency is thus created by the members themselves and not by a bank or government. Hence money is never in short supply and inflation-free.
The seller, having a positive balance on his account once the transaction has taken place, can use the credits to buy goods or services. In some cases local currency notes can be withdrawn from a positive account balance, just as is the case with withdrawing ordinary money at the bank. Tucson Tokens, the name for LETS credit in Toronto, are an example (Greco 2001: 104). The account is debited with the withdrawn amount involved. The withdrawn currency notes circulate as means of payment until a receiver deposits the banknotes to his or her account. The advantage of using banknotes is that it encourages self-regulation: a bookkeeper is not required to keep track of the transaction, reducing the workload (Douthwaite & Wagman 1999: 18; Seyfang 2004: 8).
Function (Medium of Exchange, Store of Value, Standard of Value)
As the name itself already reveals, Local Exchange and Trading Systems serve the function of exchange in the first place. No interest is charged or paid, so there is no incentive to hoard credits, and exchange becomes the primary objective of LETS-credit. For ease of use, the value of LETS credit usually equates with national currency (Seyfang 2002:3). Hence, the standard of value for measuring the merit of products and services in a LETS, often reflects the price in Euro’s or Dollars.
LETS-credit is created with every transaction taking place in the system. All participants start with zero trade credits. With every transaction the account of the buyer is credited and the account of the receiver is debited by the same amount. The trade credit itself is not redeemable for ordinary currency, it isn’t backed by any good or service, nor is there collateral involved. Having a positive balance means that one can lay claim on products and services in the community. Having a negative balance simply means that one has an obligation and a promise towards the community to deliver goods or services in the future.
Funding and Cost Recuperation
To finance the cost of operating a LETS, an annual or monthly fee in ordinary cash and/or LETS credit is often charged Greco 2001: 91). The fee should pay for expenditures such as the bookkeeping, recruiting of new members, the use of computers and the advertising of supply and demand for products and services.
Implementation and Origin
The term ‘Local Exchange Trading System’ originated with Michael Linton who in 1983 established the Comox Valley LETS in Courtenay, British Columbia. Courtenay experienced high levels of unemployment and economic hardship after the Timber Mill (providing most of the employment for its residents) closed (Lietaer & Hallsmith 2006: 30). Introducing the Green Dollar, as a new complementary currency, enabled residents to continue economic activities despite the lack of conventional dollars. Although the LETS attracted considerable attention, it eventually collapsed as result of Linton’s heavy indebtedness within the LETS system (Douthwaite & Wagman 1999: 18). Unlimited indebtedness is one of the main flaws in the implementation of LETS. Buyers having a negative balance are obliged to deliver services or goods in order for their account to return to a positive balance (Douthwaite & Wagman 1999:17). To prevent high levels of indebtedness (that is taking more from the system than contributing to it), some systems have imposed a debt-limit. It is striking that such a debt-limit often lacks, neither is there an instrument to force or an incentive to lure accountholders out of debt. For this reason, massive long-term indebtedness of some accountholders has often occurred. Consequently many LETS collapsed as trust by other members waned (Douthwaite & Wagman 1999:18). LETS are usually transparent, meaning that member’s balances are no secret and participants can constantly check the account balance of any other participant. Additionally, account balances of the members are regularly published by the bookkeeper. Because LETS exist locally on a small scale, group pressure often prevents indebtedness. Additionally, participants are obliged to settle debts in ordinary currency when ending their account . Nevertheless, a LETS organization cannot legally enforce a participant to end his account or to return to an account balance of zero. Publishing account balances seems not to be the solution and is moreover, controversial, as not all members are willing to publicly announce their private financial situation. Collateral or an enforceable repayment schedule could solve the problems of indebtedness in LETS.
It should be noted that LETS is not invented to avoid taxation. Every member participating in a LETS is liable to the state for taxation, both income tax and VAT. This is especially the case with providing professional services using LETS (Lietaer 1999: 139). LETS activity is part of the formal economy. Nevertheless, many (local) governments acknowledge the importance of LETS for improving the economic and social conditions of the participants. Tax relieve, governmental support, subsidies or similar stimuli are therefore not uncommon (Lietaer 1999: 135-140).
Impact and Significance
Size and Growth By 2001 there were around 1800-2000 Local Exchange Trading Systems in the world (Greco 2001: 94). It is remarkable that LETS have barely obtained foothold in the US. The majority of LETS are located in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Calgary Dollars (Canada), Auckland LETS (New Zealand), Blue Mountain LETS (Sydney - Australia) , LETSLink (Britain) , Le Grain de SEL (France), Tauschringen in (Germany) and Noppes (The Netherlands) are probably the most famous in this regard. In recent years however, the number of LETS and the number of participants has significantly decreased, and by now many have become defunct or insignificant. Blue Mountain LETS for example, one of the largest local exchange and trading systems, was dissolved in 2001. Its 2002 successor, the Blue Mountain Community Exchange System, never matched its success.
Achievements and Impediments Simplicity, media-attention, and a hands on approach are factors that initially contributed to the fast growth in the number of LETS on the global level. Many contemporary complementary currencies have received valuable insights from the experiences and experiments of LETS. Despite the fact that LETS have emerged worldwide, it is widely acknowledged that they have only been partially effective and face some major obstacles to truly obtain their goals (Seyfang 2002; 2004).
According to Seyfang (2002: 3) one of the main obstacles of LETS is the limited scale (size) of LETS; “by 1999, a national survey of the 303 projects in the UK, found they had an average of 72 members each, and a turnover equivalent to £4,664 (£65 per member)”. It means that LETS often do not provide for all the services and goods needed by the LETS members or the large distances between members in a scheme prevent trade from occurring. The failure to attract businesses limits the usefulness of LETS credit even further (Greco 2001: 100; 109). As a result the volume and value of trade is very low (Aldridge & Patterson 2002). At the same time, many individuals feel they have no valuable skills or products to offer to other members in the LETS. Whereas conventional national currency is generally hard to earn but easy to spend, the opposite holds true to LETS credit; it is easy to earn but much harder to spend.
Seyfang (2002:3) in her study on LETS in the UK argues that the voluntary and ‘unprofessional’ nature of the LETS organization is one important explanation in this regard. Volunteers do not have the time, resources and know-how to create a solid growth strategy for the LETS they try to develop.
Additionally, because of the small size of the LETS, revenue turns out to be insufficient for the continuation of a LETS. To finance the cost of operating a LETS, an annual or monthly fee in ordinary cash and/or LETS credit is often charged. The fee should pay for expenditures such as the bookkeeping, recruiting of new members, the use of computers and the advertising of supply and demand for products and services. At the same time meaningful levels of funding for the LETS are usually absent.
Seyfang (2004: 8) in a later study emphasizes that government regulations are another significant obstacle as LETS primarily target the economically excluded looking for alternative means of earning an income. “Current social security rules deter benefit-recipients from participating in local exchange systems like LETS, by counting LETS earnings as equivalent to cash income, and so potentially threatening means-tested benefits when levels exceed a given limit” (Seyfang 2004: 8).
More worrisome however, was a study on local exchange trading systems in the Netherlands. A study on Noppes by the sociologist Henk-Jaap Batelaan, revealed that the LETS market economy resembles the characteristics of the ordinary capitalist market economy. Those competent in the normal market economy, also possess most credits within the Noppes program and can spend them at will, whilst the unemployed were, and remained indebted. The study shows how LETS systems like Noppes largely failed to achieve the very purpose they were designed for.
Overall, LETS turn out to be less successful than many of its complementary currency counterparts. Time Banking and Regiogeld have proven to be more solid concepts, especially by learning from the strengths and weaknesses of LETS.
Aldridge, T.J. & A. Patterson (2002) ‘LETS get Real: Constraints on the Development of Local Exchange Trading Schemes’, Area, 34 (4): 370-381
Batelaan, Henk-Jaap (1998) ‘De Vrije Markt van Noppes’, Amsterdam, UvA Scriptie, Sociologie 1998
Douthwaite, Richard J. & Dan Wagman (1999) Barataria. A Community Exchange Network for the Third System. Utrecht: Strohalm.
Greco, Thomas H. Jr. (2001) Money. Understanding and Creating Alternatives to Legal Tender. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Lietaer, Bernard A. (1999) The Future of Money: Creating New Wealth, Work and a Wiser World. Post Falls: Century Publishers.
Lietaer, Bernard A. & Gwendolyn Hallsmith (2006) Community Currency Guide. Global Community Initiatives. 
Seyfang, Gill (2002) ‘Tackling Social Exclusion with Community Currencies; Learning from LETS to Time Banks’. International Journal of Community Currency Research, 6 (3): 1-11
Seyfang, Gill (2004) Bartering for a Better Future. Community Currencies and Sustainable Consumption. Working paper of the Research Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE). Norwich: University of East Anglia press.