Zimbabwe banned the use of foreign currencies this week, demanding that businesses accept only local currency.
This has triggered fears of a return to Robert Mugabe-era inflation, which peaked at over a million percent. That was brought to a sudden end in 2013 when the country allowed trading in foreign currencies, and inflation dropped virtually overnight to under 10%. The decision to allow trade in US dollars, South African rands and Botswana pula was widely credited for stabilising the country’s shambolic economy. The collapse was primarily driven by a massive fiscal deficit and the reckless printing of money by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ).
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Yesterday the so-called Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) dollar strengthened to 11 to the US dollar from a low of 14 earlier in the week, according to some reports. Economist Eddie Cross, one of the architects of the new financial regulations and a former Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) parliamentarian, says the new measures are aimed at reducing the RTGS dollar to around four to the US dollar. That should also bring inflation down from its current level of about 100%.
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It was this spiralling inflation, and the inability of ordinary Zimbabweans to survive in a country where hard currency became the preferred legal tender, that prompted the sudden move. Most Zimbabweans struggled to lay their hands on US dollars and rands.
Several measures were announced: the formation of a monetary policy committee similar to that of the SA Reserve Bank to make decisions on interest rates; an increase in short-term lending rates from 17% to 50%; and an increase in forex for trade on the inter-bank market.
Curbing forex opportunists
One of the purposes of these measures is to reduce the massive arbitrage opportunities available to those with access to foreign currency. Because the price of fuel is controlled at Z$3.50 a litre by the state, more than 2 000 heavy duty fuel trucks enter Zimbabwe every day to transit the country to states to the north and east, using the low fuel prices to fill their tanks.
It is reckoned that 2-3 million litres of diesel is being shipped out of Zimbabwe each day because of this pricing gap.
Fuel can be purchased in Zimbabwe for the equivalent of US$0.20 a litre and sold in Botswana for the equivalent of US$1.30 a litre – an easy path to quick riches for thousands of truck owners.
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“Many people were borrowing local currency at 17% so they could engage in these arbitrage opportunities, but this had the effect of driving up prices for everybody else,” says Cross. “By hiking short-term interest rates to 50%, this makes it far less attractive for arbitrage. This should result in lower inflation across the board over the next few months. I think these measures are a step in the right direction, and we should see the parallel market rates for the RTGS dollar continue to strengthen.”
In February this year finance minister Mthuli Ncube instructed the RBZ to set up an inter-bank market for forex. The reserve bank resisted the instruction until President Emmerson Mnangagwa stepped in and insisted that the bank adhere to the Short Term Stabilisation Programme that had been adopted in 2018.
Tax threshold may be raised to offset the effects
The resurgence of inflation to 100% – though far less frightening than had been the case prior to 2008 – makes it increasingly difficult for families to survive. One of the measures being considered is to raise the threshold for paying income tax from RTGS$500 to RTGS$2 000, which would compensate for the effects of inflation.
Despite the rise in inflation in recent months, Zimbabwe has accumulated forex reserves of about US$1 billion and a fiscal surplus of US$2 billion.
Companies are required to remit 55% of forex earnings to the RBZ, amounting to about US$3 billion a year. Half of these retentions will now be made available on the inter-bank market as part of the package of stabilisation measures.
The RTGS was de-linked from the US dollar in September 2018, after which the exchange rate fell from RTGS$4:US$1 to 14:1 earlier this month. The improvement this week to 11:1 is perhaps an early sign that the measures are working.
‘A plan to hoover up forex’ from business
Other Zimbabweans are not so convinced. James Chidakwa, an opposition MDC member of parliament, says there are suspicions that this is a plan by the RBZ to hoover up all the forex from businesses.
“It will all end in tears for the rest of the people,” he says. “Not so long ago Ncube was asked what we should do about traders who ask for US dollars. His response was that it was perfectly legal for them to do so because we’re in a multi-currency economy.
“We have a two-headed beast running the country. How do businesses price their goods and services let alone replenish their goods?
“Another round of price madness has effectively been promoted. As MPs we are sandbagged with these people [those who run the country’s finances]. Ncube does not know what he is doing. This also reflects badly on the president’s judgement, by hiring someone who failed to run a bank [Ncube was chief economist and vice president of the African Development Bank] to turn around a failed state’s economy.”
The MDC yesterday said the new measures amount to the reintroduction of the dreaded Zim dollar, without addressing the economic fundamentals to support the local currency.
“Despite government’s promise that it would introduce a new Zimbabwe currency in the next nine months while it addresses the fundamentals, the regime today just ambushed the nation and reintroduced the Zimbabwean dollar as the only legal tender in local transactions,” said Luke Tamborinyoka, MDC deputy national spokesperson.
“This means that the multi-currency regime, which provided some modicum of decency and predictability, has been thrown out of the window in favour of the volatile local currency that is not backed by adequate gold and foreign currency reserves.”
The trust and confidence that are vital to public willingness to transact in a new currency are not present.
“It remains to be seen how the market will respond to the madness, but the knee-jerk monetary policy introduced in the dead of the night is reminiscent of the rushed decisions of this regime,” said Tamborinyoka.
“The fuel price increases announced by Mnangagwa himself in the dead of night and that caused a furore in the country’s economy are a case in point.”