Zimbabwe’s financial system is living on borrowed time – and borrowed money



File 20171031 18730 lzg8n8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
An illegal money changer holds bond notes outside a bank in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.
Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

Roger Southall, University of the Witwatersrand

Zimbabwe’s financial system increasingly resembles a house of cards. Were one card to give way – for instance, if South Africa’s power utility, Eskom, were to have the temerity to suggest that Zimbabwe actually pay for the electricity that it’s supplying the country – the entire edifice would collapse.

To put it another way, the government is bust. It is again printing money to cover its spiralling costs, and inflation is rising. And given that there’s an election looming in 2018, Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF doesn’t want to cut-back. Far from it, it wants to carry on spending, as fast as it can.

The rot goes back to the early 2000’s. ZANU-PF profligacy had been fuelled by acontinuous cycle of simply printing more money, and resultant runaway inflation. Mega-inflation meant that ordinary people lost their pensions and whatever savings they had, as the Zimbabwe dollar lost its value and people resorted to barter or the use of other currencies.

Ultimately, the government faced no choice but to accept reality. In 2008 it scrapped the Zimbabwe dollar in favour of a basket of other currencies, although within a short time, this meant in effect the reign of the US dollar.

“Dollarisation” allowed for the pursuit of more rational policies by the coalition Government of National Unity which followed the disputed 2008 election. However, its control of the electoral machinery ensured that ZANU-PF won a resounding victory in the 2013 election. Within a short space of time it returned to its familiar policy mix of profligacy, corruption and populist economics.

Yet ZANU-PF faced major problems. Above all, “dollarisation” meant that the cost of Zimbabwe’s exports on international markets was high. Worse, the dramatic collapse in agricultural production since the early 2000s (following the appropriation of white farms) alongside the decimation of the country’s manufacturing industries meant that there was relatively little to export anyway. Tobacco production has recovered a little, but the quality is less than it used to be, so returns are relatively less.

Meanwhile government insistence that mines should be 51% Zimbabwean owned has done nothing to entice inward investment or boost exports.

In short, the capacity of the economy to earn US dollars by selling goods externally has fallen dramatically, and the supply of money circulating within the country has dried up. Unemployment stands at around 90%.

President Robert Mugabe’s latest response has been to replace finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, who had been warning of the structure’s fragility in ever more urgent tones. The new finance minister is Ignatius Chombo, a party loyalist, who will brook no talk of any need for structural reform.

The bond notes

Faced by a looming crisis, the ZANU-PF government has resorted to three key strategies.

One has been the issue of “bond notes” (of different denominations) by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Officially, they’re designed to swell the amount of money in circulation within the country. The problem is that apart from having no value outside the country, nobody trusts them as they have been issued by a ZANU-PF government, and it was this government that presided over the hyperinflation.

ZANU-PF’s announcement that it was issuing bond notes was met with a run on the banks as depositors sought to withdraw dollars as fast as they could. Their assumption was that this was a government ploy to reintroduce the Zimbabwean dollar. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe responded by limiting the amount of dollars individuals could withdraw.

People are reluctant to use the bond notes. But they’re still sometimes forced to accept them because of the sheer shortage of “real” money. As a result when they can, they rush off to the local bus station where they can sell them for dollars to currency traders – albeit illegally.

The second strategy has been the rapid expansion of country’s ability to manage electronic transactions. Its aim has been to expand the amount of money in circulation without using up “real” dollars.

Accordingly, government employees are now largely paid electronically Similarly, government employees (and everyone else) now pay nearly all their bills within the country electronically.

And Zimbabweans are rarely able to convert the notional sums of dollars they hold in the bank into real cash – unless they make use of the currency traders in illegal transactions.

Meanwhile, with the rate of inflation continuing to rise combined with the widespread lack of faith in the banks, many Zimbabweans spend their bank balances on consumer goods as quickly as possible rather than attempting to “save”. After all, if times get hard, you won’t be able to get rid of your bond notes, but you may be able to sell your fridge.

Fanciful financial system

But it’s the third strategy which the government has pursued which is really fuelling a fanciful financial system.

Since 2013, government expenditure has steadily increased year by year, despite the country earning very little internationally. The ZANU-PF government may have hoped to fund this by its old trick of literally printing money, that is, by expanding the supply of bond notes.

But such was the negative popular sentiment that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe seems to have restricted their issue. Supposedly the issue of bond notes is backed by a USD$200 loan by the Afreximbank, but no-one really knows how many have been issued because the central bank provides no information.

What the government has done instead is to fund its rising costs by issuing treasury bills (whereby the government touts for loans on the capital market against promises of later redemption). No-one in their right mind would want to buy them, but Zimbabwe’s banks today have little option. As inward investment into the country has dried up to a trickle, there is little else for them to spend their money on, and the interest rates that the government promises to pay are, at face value, attractively high.

The coalition government of national unity recorded budget surpluses for three of the four full years in which the opposition controlled the Treasury. For its part, the ZANU-PF government recorded deficits of USD$186 million and USD$125 million in 2014 and 2015. Recently, the then finance minister Chinamasa projected a deficit of USD$1.41 billion for 2017. As of June 30, 2017, there were USD$2.5 billion worth of Treasury bills on issue.

The ConversationIn other words, the spending will continue. Zimbabwe’s financial system is living on borrowed time and borrowed money. It will again end in financial ruin, as it did in 2008. But all ZANU-PF cares about is ensuring that it wins the next election and allowing its political elite to “eat”.

Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Vital Signs: how likely is another financial crisis? It comes down to what we believe


Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a weekly economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies.

This week: let’s take a break from the data and analyse why the Chair of the United States Federal Reserve says another financial crisis is unlikely in our lifetimes.


Last week I wrote in this column that Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Philip Lowe was not taken to giving boring speeches. This week, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen went him one better with her remarks to the British Academy.

Yellen said of the prospect of another financial crisis like that of 2008:

I do think we’re much safer, and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes, and I don’t think it will be.

Her rationale was that the regulatory changes put in place since the crisis have made the system a great deal safer.

Yellen expressed her hope that these regulations would not be overturned, saying of attempts to do so:

We’re now about a decade after the crisis and memories do tend to fade, so I hope that won’t be the case, and I hope those of us who went through it will remind the public that it’s very important to have a safer, sounder financial system and that this is central to sustainable growth.

One piece of evidence supporting Yellen’s view were the so-called “stress tests” that the Federal Reserve has performed on US banks since 2011.

Just hours before this writing, the Fed approved plans for proposed dividend payouts for all 34 firms taking part in their annual stress tests. This is the first time since the annual stress tests began that all participating firms got a passing grade from the Fed.

So what should we make of Yellen’s prediction? This doesn’t have the ring of “confidence-boosting” rhetoric. It seems as though this is her genuine view.

At this point I should make two things clear. One: I have enormous respect for Janet Yellen, and two: I was fairly surprised by her remarks. So how does one reconcile these?

We still don’t know what caused the global financial crisis

It’s important to understand that the proximate cause of the financial crisis was a kind of “bank run on the system”. In a classic bank run – like the ones of the Great Depression – depositors go from believing that other depositors think their banks are safe, and are therefore willing to leave their money there, to believing that others consider the banks unsound.

Once investors believe that other investors are going to run on the bank, they want to run too (because banks typically hold less than 10% of the cash required to pay back all depositors). In the language of game theory, there is a switch from the “good equilibrium” to the “bad equilibrium”.

In the financial crisis there wasn’t a run on traditional banks so much as on investment banks and other financial institutions. This led to credit markets drying up (such as the commercial debt and “repo” markets).

What caused this shift in beliefs is a hotly debated issue. The large increase in US house prices and imprudent lending by US mortgage originators played an important role. The use of collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and synthetic versions of CDOs were important. Lack of regulator controls allowed these things to happen, and incentives within financial institutions facilitated and encouraged risk and bad behaviour.

Yet for quite a long time the “good equilibrium” prevailed. What caused the switch?

That is the big question, and I’m pretty confident that not even Yellen knows the answer.

It all comes down to what we believe

What Yellen does seem to be saying is that regulatory responses to the crisis have made it much less likely that bad behaviour is going to occur. That certainly seems plausible. And if there is no – or very little – bad behavior, then beliefs about what other believe may not be particularly important.

But if there is a view that some new form of moral hazard is taking place, and people lose faith in the regulatory regime, then perhaps 2008 could occur again. And soon.

As game theory – and the lessons of the classic depression-era bank runs – teach us, it all comes down to what people believe about what other people believe.

The ConversationThat seems like a pretty slippery object to me.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian Politics: 14 July 2013


With the return of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister in Australia, things have been moving along fairly quickly in Australian politics. Time of course is running out as an election looms, so time is necessarily of the essence. One of the areas that the ALP has moved to address is the carbon tax, with Kevin Rudd’s government moving toward an emissions trading scheme. This has brought the typical and expected responses from the opposition, as well as charges of hypocrisy from the Greens. For more visit the following links:

http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/kevin-rudd-confirms-government-to-scrap-fixed-carbon-price-20130714-2pxqi.html

The link below is to an article that pretty much sums up the situation currently in Australian politics I think – well worth a read.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/12/tony-abbott-fall-stunt-men

Also causing continuing angst in Australia is the issue of asylum seekers and boat people. There has been even more terrible news from the seas surrounding Christmas Island, with yet another asylum seeker tragedy involving a boat from Indonesia.

Around the edges of the mainstream parties are those of Bob Katter and Clive Palmer. There are stories of an alleged financial offer from Clive Palmer’s ‘Palmer United Party’ to join with ‘Katter’s Australian Party’ for $20 million dollars and form the combined ‘Katter United Australian Party.’ For more visit the links below:

http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/national/palmer-denies-deal-with-katters-party/story-e6frfku9-1226679175607
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-14/katter2c-palmer-at-odds-over-claims-mining-magnate-offered-fin/4819098

And finally, for just a bit of a chuckle – not much of one – just a small chuckle, have a read of the following article linked to at:

http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/turnbull-still-not-laughing-at-tonys-internet-humour/story-fnii5s3z-1226679169349

Cyprus: Financial Jitters


The link below is to an article reporting on the latest financial jitters to hit the world economy and the continuing crisis in Cyprus.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/apr/12/gold-selloff-cyprus-eurozone-crisis

Cyprus: Financial Crisis


Just as Cyprus was disappearing from the news, the link below is to an article reporting on just how bad the situation in Cyprus really is.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/apr/11/cyprus-bailout-leaked-debt-analysis-bill

Portugal: Financial Crisis Bites


The link below is to an article that reports on the financial crisis in Portugal.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/07/portugal-prime-minister-cuts-health-education

Cyprus: Latest News on Financial Crisis


The link below is to an article reporting on the latest news from Cyprus concerning the financial crisis there.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/29/cyprus-not-leave-euro-president