Estimated reading time: 21 minutes
The term “black market” evokes strange and far away times like the Dark Ages or a time of pirates. In actual fact, the term emerged during World War II. In Europe, the black market became a place for the exchange of basic goods that were in short supply.
In the United States, the black market evolved as a result of price controls and rationing. In an effort to support the war effort, the U.S. government fixed the price of many goods without the ability to maintain a supply to meet the demand. Ration stamps were instituted to ensure everyone got “their fair share” but it still wasn’t enough, especially for basic commodities like meat and gasoline.
Prohibition had long since ended, but that experiment resulted in a widespread black market of bathtub gin and smuggled spirits from other countries in the 1920s, creating the country’s first foray into a black market.
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What Exactly Is a Black Market?
There’s widespread agreement for the definition:
“A black market is an economic activity that takes place outside government-sanctioned channels. Illegal market transactions usually occur “under the table” to let participants avoid government price controls or taxes. The goods and services offered in a black market can be illegal, meaning their purchase and sale are prohibited by law, or they can be legal but transacted to avoid taxes.”
The black market is distinct from the grey market in which commodities are distributed through channels that, while legal, are unofficial, unauthorized, or unintended by the original manufacturer, and the white market, in which trade is legal and official.
In the grand scheme of things, the black markets of prohibition and World War II were fairly innocent in terms of their transactions and goods. Unfortunately, the black market has evolved into a sinister marketplace engaged in the sale of guns, explosives, drugs, human trafficking, human organs, and even slavery.
And here again, it’s tempting to believe that these kinds of transactions only take place in desperate, undeveloped countries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are the top 10 countries with active black markets and the percentage of “under the table” transactions that occur:
- Greece (21.5%)
- Italy (19.8%)
- Spain (17.2%)
- Norway (12.2%)
- Germany (10.4%)
- Canada (9.8%)
- Australia (9.4%)
- United Kingdom (9.4%)
- Japan (8.6%)
- Netherlands (8.4%)
- Switzerland (6%)
- United States (5.4%)
For the most part, the black market in developed nations is dominated by counterfeit goods, mostly clothing knockoffs from established brands.
But there’s a new and ominous transaction that involves the hacking and collection of personal information and its sale on a virtual black market called “The Dark Web.” In most of those instances Russia, China and Iran are the dominant purveyors of stolen information and ransomware.
Additionally, few countries are without a black market for street drugs, prostitution, firearms and stolen goods.
Is There Anything Good About a Black Market?
The name certainly doesn’t have good connotations, but if you look toward the days of World War II, black markets were sometimes the only marketplace for desperate and starving people, especially in Europe.
During those times, the black market was the only reliable source for many of the everyday necessities for survival. And that could happen again.
Choose Your Collapse
Economic collapse, societal collapse, the collapse of governments, the global collapse of the Internet, even an asteroid strike or mega-pandemic, and everything we take for granted is gone. The grid is down, the stores are closed, and even when they’re open, the shelves are mostly empty.
The assumption is that it is largely engaged in transactions for goods that could at least be legal if sold, and not beyond comprehension like human trafficking.
It’s similar in some ways to the grey market we mentioned at the beginning. It’s about a desperate and re-emerging marketplace where many of the things that were purchased in these shadow markets during World War II are once again supplied and in demand.
Are Black Markets a Safe Marketplace?
Absolutely not. It’s a place without guarantees, warranties, and few if any lists of ingredients or sell-by dates. Foods could be spoiled, medicines could be past their expiration dates, ammunition could be decades-old duds, and bullion could merely be gold-plated coins.
It’s a “buyer beware” market and if you can’t assess the quality and value of any item by looking at it, you’re gambling. It’s as dangerous as today’s black market for street drugs and the number of overdoses as a result of illicit drug sales is staggering.
If times devolve to the point that black markets become the only markets, you really have to ask yourself how desperately you need something and how you would assess the safety and value of something before and especially after you buy it. It would be wise to do the same if you are selling it.
Prices and Pricing in a Black Market
In any black market, some prices will be surprisingly low while others will be astronomically high. It seems to always be one or the other with little in between. In both instances, pricing is symptomatic of numerous possibilities.
Low prices are often found when the goods are stolen, counterfeit, expired, contaminated, or of very low quality. In rare instances, it occurs when someone simply has too much of any item or are acting in a purely noble and altruistic way to help others.
High pricing typically occurs when demand far outweighs supply, especially for necessary or critical items. This could occur with prescription medicines (which is already happening with some of the prices drug companies are charging), items that are difficult to produce or simply can’t be produced anymore, or items that have suddenly acquired a new value based on current circumstances.
The big question has to do with the currency for transactions. If it’s a time of hyperinflation, currency may be worthless and barter exchange maybe become the currency of choice. Gold and silver coins and even the jewelry would also have intrinsic value, but it’s always a question of how much you have and how much you keep.
This may be the reason to think about entering a marketplace like this. In a time when everything seems desperate, you need to figure out how to pay for things. Engaging in commerce in a shadow market may be one of the few options to keep your head above water when high inflation and little supply of goods rules the marketplace.
What Might Be in Demand in a Post-Disaster Black Market?
Historically, black markets have been defined by everyday items that people either needed or saw as a long-gone luxury.
The rationing of meat during World War II made it more appealing to people than before due to its unavailability. The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s made people want to drink more than ever.
But there’s a survival aspect to any emerging black market in a desperate society. A lot depends on the location and the needs of a local area uniquely defined by the geography, overall conditions, weather, and status of the general population.
Food also emerges as a critical need, but the category is so broad, it’s safe to assume that any food sold will meet a demand.
Here are some things that would most likely define a black market economy during times of war or catastrophic disaster. This can vary, and other items may have unique value to a location. But based on past, present, and future possibilities, these seem to be some of the most common needs.
1. Communication Equipment
In difficult and desperate times, basic communication with friends, family, and especially local emergency services is a constant need. It’s possible cell phones will still be operational, but land lines may be more reliable, requiring the use of old wired phones.
What’s also likely is that handheld communication sets like walkie talkies and CB radios will have a lively market. Here’s the list of what people will potentially be looking for:
- Old Cell Phones – Don’t forget to erase the data on any old cell phones you’re selling or trading.
- Walkie Talkies – Sets of 2 and 4 can be purchased at Walmart and through Amazon for very little.
- CB radios (inexpensive on Amazon and eBay)
- HAM radio sets (these may be the most highly prized communication sets)
- Old plug-in phones (very inexpensive to buy right now on Amazon or eBay and if you have one or two laying around, hold onto them)
There’s already a black market for firearms largely driven by criminal activity. In a time following societal collapse, the market will by driven more by people in desperate need of self-defense.
It’s illegal to sell these now on a black market and may be illegal again even after a societal collapse, but there will always be a market for them.
- Firearm cleaning supplies
- Holsters and slings
Ammunition is often defined as a classic barter item and as many Mad Max movies demonstrated, ammunition may be rarer than firearms. The most popular calibers will be in demand from shotgun shells to common rounds for handguns and rifles.
4. Prescription Medicines
This is a difficult area. The reason medicines fall under the category of prescription meds is the potential danger to some people from side-effects or adverse reactions to other medicines or foods.
Dosage is also a factor that doctors carefully consider with any prescription med. Get it wrong and you could be in worse shape than you started.
They’re also difficult to buy without a prescription. Some people order in bulk from Canadian pharmacies in amounts up to 180 doses and more. That kind of excess could allow someone to have enough on hand to consider for sale in a desperate black market.
Here are common prescription medicines that would be most in demand in an apocalyptic black market and this does not include opioids.
- Albuterol for chronic bronchial conditions
- Amlodipine for chest pain (angina)
- Blood pressure medications like Metropolol and Lisinopril
- Blood thinners like Clopidogrel and Warfarin
- Gabapentin for seizures, epilepsy and nerve pain
- Insulin and Metformin to control blood sugar levels
- Levothyroxine for thyroid conditions
- Losartan for kidney disease
- Penicillin or derivatives like Amoxicillin
- Quinine Sulfate (malaria)
This is dangerous territory. Some prescription medicines like Tetracycline become highly toxic after they have expired, and others have significant side-effects and reactions, especially if dosages are incorrect or combined with other prescriptions.
If you need a prescription medicine, it’s best to simply keep what you have. If you are desperate to refill a prescription at a time when a black market is the only alternative, do your research to understand the dangers of expired meds, counterfeits, dosage amounts and assess your health as you go.
If you think it’s easy to say, “If you can’t buy prescription medicines from a trusted source, you should do without.” Tell that to a diabetic who knows they can’t live without insulin.
5. OTC Medicines
Compared to prescription medications many over-the-counter medicines seem tame. But many OTC’s were once available by prescription only and were deemed to be safe enough without side-effects or adverse interactions to allow for general sale over-the counter.
At a time when even something as basic as a pharmacy may not be available, many of these OTC’s will have significant value. Some common OTC’s that were once available by prescription only include:
It makes sense just from a basic preparedness standpoint to have OTC’s like this in storage and they could have enhanced value in barter or an emerging black market. And even something as common as baby aspirin will have value given that so many people are told by their doctor to take one a day.
But there’s another aspect to OTC’s, and that’s medical supplies and equipment. Without pharmacies or stores in general, treatment of injuries both minor and serious will create an urgent demand for the following:
Gasoline was another black market favorite during World War II when the majority of fuels were dedicated to the war effort overseas. Rationing was once again implemented, and the black market for gas was a thriving enterprise.
Farmers were often the source given that many farms had large tanks used to store gas and other fuels for farm equipment. They still received a generous allocation to raise enough food to feed the country and the troops, but oftentimes they sold excess fuels on the black market.
Gas prices today point to how the availability of a basic commodity can create a desperate need. The fundamental danger with any black market for fuels is the danger of storing any large quantity. With that being said, here are some fuels that will be in demand in any black market.
- 2-cycle oil
- Diesel fuel
- Motor oil
This isn’t about today’s practice of selling counterfeit clothes. Who cares about logos and brand names when it’s the end of the world as we know it? This is about durable, functional clothing for demanding times and potential severe weather.
- Children’s clothing
- Clothing and shoe repair items
- Hats and gloves in various sizes
- Shoes and boots
- Socks and underwear (reported to be the most in-demand items of clothing in homeless shelters)
- Winter coats and parks
If prohibition proved one thing, it’s that people won’t stop drinking even if you make alcohol illegal. Chances are good that we’ll never see another experiment like prohibition, but the manufacture of most anything including alcohol may be severely limited in a time of economic and societal collapse.
Some people have the equipment and skill to distill their own alcohol. That will no doubt be in demand in any shadow market including the following:
- Aperitifs like hard cider, brandy and cognac
- Spirits from moonshine to whiskey
This is another dangerous area especially with distilled spirits. Pure alcohol made the wrong way or contaminated can be deadly. Both buyer and seller need to beware.
9. Tools and Hardware
In a time without hardware stores and basic services the, DIY lifestyle and work-style will become everyone’s preoccupation. Basics tools and hardware will be in high demand, especially when so much has to be rebuilt after any disaster.
- Garden tools
- Masonry tools
- Pliers, vise grips, channel locks
- Plumbing tools
- Roofing tools
- Rulers, squares and other measuring tools
- Assorted hardware in various sizes
There are other tools that are used for various and specialized repairs that vary depending on the culture, location, and traditional needs of the local population. If everyone is currently using certain tools or hardware a lot in your area, it will definitely be in demand when they’re rare and hard to find.
10. Gold and Silver Coins and Jewelry
In many collapsed societies money has no meaning. Barter economies often emerge next to black or shadow markets. In today’s black markets, much of what is bought and sold as jewelry or coins is stolen merchandise.
In a post-apocalyptic black market, many people will be scouring their jewelry boxes and coin bank/mason jars to not only sell in a shadow market but used as what may be the new currency.
- Gold and silver coins as bullion
- Necklaces and brooches
- Old minted coinage with silver content
- Pins and pendants
Diamonds may be the least valuable because it will be so difficult to determine fakes from genuine diamonds. Jewelry that is made from or with gold and silver usually have a carat mark stamped indicating either 12k, 14k, 16k, 18k, 20k, 22k and in very rare instances 24k.
This is commonly referred to as the “Hallmark.” The higher the number the higher the precious metal content. If you don’t see a “k” stamp or Hallmark, it’s plated and falls in the category of costume jewelry.
You should also know how to identify silver coins. Typically they will not have a faint copper appearance on their edges which indicates it is a plated coin usually minted after 1964. Most coins minted in 1964 and before have some level of silver content with the exception of pennies.
The hardest to assess are the gold plated coins posing as bullion. Many collectible coins are sold with gold plating to commemorate various things and are worthless now and most definitely in the future.
Curiously, many sources say that the value of gold will soon diminish as disaster lingers and many of the commodities we are listing here will become the new currency. Then again, there’s that thing called crypto currency, assuming the Internet is still functioning to enable the transactions.
The black market for tobacco never ends. Most black market tobacco is sold to avoid taxes on tobacco and continues to this day. In a time when a black market economy rules tobacco will be a very rare commodity.
This is another area where the true age or expiration will be suspect and any raw or leaf tobacco may or may not be actual tobacco.
If you have any thoughts about selling tobacco someday, the best approach would be tins of leaf tobacco that have been kept frozen, refrigerated or at least as cool as possible. Growing your own is a possibility but tobacco growing can be a difficult and demanding task.
12. Vitamin and Mineral supplements
In a time when nutrition will vary and food diversity may be limited, common things like vitamin supplements will be in demand.
Generic brands usually have the same dosage and quality as branded vitamins and are one of those products that are cheaper in bulk. The most popular vitamin and mineral supplements in order include:
Some of these supplements like apple cider vinegar can be home-brewed or, in the case of green tea, actually grown in some areas. Almost all vitamin and mineral supplements are OTC and if bought in bulk could be a very valuable item in any marketplace.
13. Electronics: Computers, Phones, Pad Devices.
A lot of this depends on the condition of the power grid and the shape of the Internet. Chances are good some things will still work. If they do, electronic devices will be in high demand to varying degrees.
Don’t throw away that old laptop or desktop computer and save those retired cell phones and pad devices. Even some children’s game pad devices can send and receive emails. Just make sure you’ve totally cleared any personal information before selling it to anyone.
14. Solar Power Panels and Solar Equipment like Solar Power Banks
In a post-apocalyptic movie called The Book of Eli, the main character (Eli) walks into a rundown general store to get his iPod recharged. In an environment where nothing seems to work, even recharging a battery can be a challenge.
That’s when solar panels can be worth their weight in gold. They can be used to recharge lithium battery powered tools, electronic devices, car batteries, even recharge AA, AAA, C and D cell batteries if they’re rechargeable.
Buy some. They are invaluable for any survival situation and will be a sought after item in a desperate black market. Solar powered lights are another option and you can buy a basic garden solar light at Walmart or the dollar store for a buck.
The obvious challenge with any generator is a reliable supply of gas. If you have that access, the portable electric power from a generator in a “grid-down” environment will be significant. You can buy them for a little more than $100 at Harbor Freight tools or for a little more through Amazon.
Larger models with 4,000 to 5,000 watt outputs run about $400 to $500. Figure one hundred dollars for every 1,000 watts of output. It’s worth having at least one. Buy more if you have any thoughts of actively participating in a black market during desperate times.
This is a blast from the past. World War II was the benchmark for a black market as a source of meat and with meat prices rising the way they are today, it wouldn’t be surprising if some new alternatives to our meat supply begin to appear.
One obvious way to prepare for any meat shortage is to raise your own. Chickens and rabbits are the easiest followed by pigs and, if you have the land, cattle. Rustling of any livestock is a real possibility, and cattle rustlers made a return appearance during World War II when beef was a rare treat.
The biggest challenge is quality. This isn’t a market with USDA or FDA approval, and one thing they ensure is the general quality of meat in any marketplace.
The questions will always be: is it beef or horsemeat? Is it pork sausage or possum sausage? All of them are edible if processed, chilled, and cooked properly, but buyer and seller beware.
One way to reassure a buyer is to sell the meat as a live animal. That’s standard practice in Asian markets where everything from chickens and ducks to live snakes and pangolins are sold in their cages. The unfortunate consequence is that these wet markets are often pointed to as the source of bacterial and viral outbreaks, including the possible origin of COVID-19.
The world is addicted to sugar and it’s the most common sweetener. Substitutes abound from honey to maple syrup and even to plants like stevia, but sugar is the go-to commodity for everything from jams and jellies to baking and sweetening many of the things we drink.
It also has food preservative qualities, but it’s very difficult to grow and process your own, especially in large quantities.
Sugar in bulk is relatively cheap but if for any reason imports of sugar cane or sugar refining ceases, the price will skyrocket and the reduced supply will not keep up with demand.
Sugar is one of those safe items to buy and sell in a black market, and anyone who doesn’t offer a taste of their sugar is trying to hide something. It’s easily bought and stored in 5-gallon plastic buckets and will always have a place in the kitchen, even in the toughest times.
18. Personal Care Items
In stressful times, we don’t always get too fussy about appearances, but there are some basic personal care items that most people have a hard time living without. And while you can make your own soap and improvise things like tampons and toilet paper, some people don’t have the knowledge or resources, and many people can’t imagine life without some basic personal care items.
If you do take the time to make your own soap, you may find yourself in a cottage industry rather than a shadow market but here again, when this becomes the only kind of marketplace you buy and sell what you need.
- Toilet paper
- First aid supplies
- Hand sanitizer (you can also make this yourself, you just need to figure out how to package it for individual sales)
- Toothpaste and toothbrushes
- Nail cutters, tweezers, small scissors, fingernail file (you can buy these as a kit at the dollar store)
19. Lumber Tools
Imagine a time without lumber yards. Many people will have to either recycle old lumber or cut and shape their own. Those tasks call for heavy duty tools to make everything from framing lumber to split rails, shakes for roofs and even furniture.
Tools will always be in demand, especially when stores are closed or perpetually out of stock. And while power tools can make short work of many things, we may be without power unless they’re battery-powered tools with the solar panels to charge them.
You can buy multiple tools now at a home center, buy them used from a flea market and refurbish them, or buy antique lumber tools that are often sold cheap as rustic decorations but are not only functional but have been unavailable for decades.
- Draw shaves
- Hand-turned boring tools
20. Baby Formula
It came as a surprise to many that one of our current shortages is baby formula. Like so many things, there are no clear answers, but poor policies affecting imports and tariffs plus continuing supply chain issues are often mentioned.
What comes as no surprise is that a black market has emerged for baby formula, and it will no doubt re-emerge following a catastrophic collapse of society or the economy. It’s very hard to stock up on baby formula now. Limits are imposed on all sales and if that sounds like rationing, it is.
It’s hard to justify stockpiling something as critical as baby food during a shortage in the event of a future catastrophe, but if and when the shortage ends (hopefully), it may be fair to add baby formula to the list of demonstrated needs for the future.
Is a Black Market a Good Idea?
No, and it never is. Any black market is symptomatic of a troubled society and a failure of government systems, policies, and business practices. But just because it’s not a good idea doesn’t mean it will cease to function today and may in fact be the primary form of commerce and trade in a troubled future.
As history has shown across wars and economic depressions, black markets often emerge as the only viable way to continue to channel goods to a local population. The only ominous possibility is if it becomes the one and only and permanent marketplace for all goods and services.
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