When a nation adopts a foreign currency it will typically face significant hurdles when it tries to rid itself of that currency, or de-dollarize. But Zimbabwe’s autocratic ruler Robert Mugabe has appeared to have done the impossible. After dollarizing ten years ago, over the course of the last year or two he and his cronies have managed to throw off the U.S. dollar and re-introduce a Zimbabwean replacement.
We can see evidence of this new currency in Zimbabwe's stock market. Below I've charted the country's main equity index, the Zimbabwe Industrial Index, going back to 2011. What an incredible rise over the last year, right? Beware; these returns have nothing to do with real economic growth. Zimbabwean equities have switched from being claim on an a stream of cash flows denominated in U.S. dollars to a stream denominated in Zimbabwe's new currency. Because investors expect inflation of the new currency to drive up future cash flows, they have responded by bidding stock prices up. In real terms (i.e. U.S. dollar terms), stock prices are probably flat–and may have even declined.
Dollarization and de-dollarization
Let's back up a bit. For those countries that mismanage their currency, the penalty box has typically been some form of dollarization. The citizens of a nation grow so tired of the hyperinflating currency that they opt for an alternative, whether that is euros, dollars, or some other medium of exchange.
Dollarization is usually only partial, the mismanaged currency continuing to circulate–albeit to a lesser extent–in conjunction with a stable alternative. Zimbabwe is unique in being one of the few countries to fully dollarize. By late 2008 the hyperinflation of the Zimbabwe dollar had become such a burden that Zimbabweans–without the permission of the Mugabe regime–threw their local currency notes into the gutters and adopted the U.S. dollar as their sole medium of exchange and unit of account.
In 2016-17, the reverse has happened. Before I go into how the new Zimbabwean currency was introduced, it should be emphasized how difficult it is to replace an existing currency with a new one. Currency usage is locked in place by tradition and broad acceptance. Even when a national currency is doing very poorly, any single individual will be loath to be the first to desert it for a more stable alternative. Money is only useful when many people are using it, and since any new money lacks a base of users, it faces the paradox that it cannot ever get jumpstarted. In the case of modern Zimbabwe, the communal benefits of using the U.S. dollar as the "language of trade" are significant, so any alternative should have faced a huge hurdle in gaining acceptance.
The birth of Zimbabwe’s new currency
That the new Zimbabwean currency managed to make it past this hurdle is a testament to the powerful combination of subterfuge, brute force, and good old Gresham's law that overpowered the staying power of the U.S. dollar. What follows are the steps that led to this switch.
After the 2008 dollarization rendered it useless, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) sneakily got back into the money printing game in 2012 or 2013. Creating a new national currency from scratch would have been politically impossible; the population was still furious with its leaders' previous monetary mistakes. So instead the central bank began issuing a U.S. look-alike. Domestic banks had the option–and later were required–to open U.S. dollar accounts at the RBZ. These accounts weren't available to the public but could be used between banks to settle domestic payments flows. At first, the RBZ's U.S. dollar deposits were as good as the real thing. Banks could easily convert them into U.S. paper currency.
As time passed, Robert Mugabe's government drew down on the RBZ's resources in order to fund a massive spending campaign. This depletion of the RBZ's hard currency reserves eventually forced it to renege on its promise to commercial banks to redeem in dollars. Regular Zimbabweans only got their first sign of trouble in early 2016. Since commercial banks could no longer rely on the RBZ to convert its U.S. deposits into real U.S. cash, the banks had no choice but to pass their inability to get cash on to their customers. The ability of the public to withdraw cash from U.S. dollar accounts was steadily cut back until they could only take out $50 per day, leading to massive lineups at banks across the nation. With the convertibility promise having been betrayed, dollars held in the banking system ceased to be equivalent to U.S. dollars. They began to trade at a 5-20% discount to genuine U.S. cash in the black market.
In November 2016 the RBZ introduced the bond note, its first issue of paper money since the old Zimbabwe dollar had expired worthless in 2008. (For more details, read my post on the topic here). As in the case of the accounts at the central bank, bond notes were supposed to be redeemable on demand into U.S. dollars. But this redemption promise proved to be a sham–and bond notes quickly began to trade at a discount to U.S. paper money.
Gresham’s law makes an appearance in Zimbabwe
Having duped the population into accepting RBZ-issued dollar notes and deposits, the government proceeded to declare its new currency legal tender. This meant that any creditor who had lent out U.S. dollars was obligated by law to accept payment in bond notes at par. At the same time, the authorities required retailers to treat all payments media as equivalents–they could neither discount the inferior currency nor accept the superior currency at a premium, the penalty being seven years in jail.
Which gets us to Gresham's law. A rule going back to medieval times, Gresham's law tells us that when a government dictates the exchange rate between different types of money, the 'good', or undervalued money will be chased out by the 'bad', or overvalued money.
To see how Gresham's law has played out in Zimbabwe, consider a Zimbabwean street hawker who prior to 2016 had been selling oranges for $1 per bag. The new Zimbabwean currency is introduced. Because this new currency is inferior to the U.S. dollar, the street hawker continues to charge $1 per bag for those paying with genuine dollars but requires everyone paying with new currency to pay an extra 50 cents, or $1.50. With this new dual-pricing scheme, some customers will continue to pay with U.S. dollars, others will pay with bond notes. Both types of money circulate together.
When the government announces that all currencies must be treated as equals, the street hawker can no longer charge an extra 50 cents to those paying with Zimbabwean currency. To meet the letter of the law, he sets his price at a flat $1.50 per bag of oranges, irrespective of the type of currency used. However, this undervalues the U.S. dollar. After all, $1.50 in U.S. cash should be capable of buying a bag-and-half of oranges, not just one bag. The result is that none of the street hawker's customers will ever pay with U.S. dollars, preferring to hoard them and proffer Zimbabwean currency as payment instead.
This parable of the street seller has occurred all over Zimbabwe over the last twelve months. Thanks to the government's edict that all currencies be treated as equals, U.S. dollars have been driven entirely from circulation. No one wants to use them because they are undervalued. As a result, bank money and bond notes have become the main media of exchange in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has dedollarized.
Prices are on the rise. I used the stock market as an illustration of this in my introduction. Consumer goods have been slower to adjust, but earlier this month Equity Axis–a local financial research firm–reported that the prices of basic goods have gone up by between 50- 100% over the past eight weeks. On the streets, illegal currency traders will buy $1 worth of bank money for just 54 cents in genuine cash, according to recent reports.
Comparing the price of bitcoin in Zimbabwe against its international price also gives some clues into how far the new currency has tumbled. Last week bitcoin traded at $13,185 on the Golix, a Zimbabwean bitcoin exchange, but only $7190 on U.S. exchanges. We need to take the price of $13,185 with a grain of salt, because Golix is a very illiquid exchange. In any case, the ratio between the two bitcoin prices implies that a Zimbabwean bank dollar is only worth 54 cents in genuine U.S. dollars ($13185/7190), confirming the unofficial street price in the previous paragraph. Put differently, in just one year Zimbabwe's new currency has lost almost half its value.
Economist Steve Hanke, who helps maintain the Hanke-Krus World Inflation Table, has used interlisted stocks on the Harare and London stock exchanges to infer that Zimbabwe’s inflation rate has soared to 77%. (I described this technique in more detail here). When inflation exceeds 50% per month and lasts for at least thirty consecutive days it qualifies as hyperinflation, which means that Zimbabwe’s current currency collapse will be added to the Hanke-Krus table.
Given that Mugabe and his cronies have already shown a penchant for destroying currencies, as long as they are in power it seems unlikely that the current inflation will stop. As I was writing this post, however, the situation in Zimbabwe has dramatically changed. On November 14, the army announced that it had placed Mugabe under house arrest. We don’t know if he will be permanently removed from power or if the situation is just a temporary one. If a new government can be established, and the international community mobilized to support it, it is possible that the collapse in the new currency will be halted, perhaps even reversing back to par. For instance, a large enough IMF loan might allow the RBZ to uphold its original promise to convert bond notes and deposits into genuine dollars on a 1:1 basis.
The market may already be pricing in an improvement in the odds of the Zimbabwean currency being stabilized. Over the two days the Zimbabwe Industrial Index has plunged by over 100 points or 20%, as the chart at top illustrates. This correction may be partly due to operating uncertainties faced by listed firms given the lack of visibility surrounding future leadership. But the largest chunk of the decline is surely a pure monetary phenomenon. Since all stock prices are quoted in Zimbabwean money, a massive increase in the purchasing power of money will cause stock prices to fall.
Many outside the country have no doubt been anxiously watching Zimbabwe's monetary experiment, especially in Europe. In the same way that Zimbabwe was part of the U.S. dollar-zone, most European nations are part of the Eurozone, in some cases reluctantly so. Zimbabwe offers these nations a blueprint for quickly exiting the monetary union. That may be one reason why the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, was so quick to shoot down Estonia's recently mooted state-backed cryptocurrency, the Estcoin. By nipping it off at the bud, he ensured he wouldn't have a home-grown bond note problem.