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Eddie Cross on the return of the Zimbabwe Dollar: Where did that come from?

By Eddie Cross

SI 142 – Monday the 24th June 2019 will go down as one of those days you remember. I have just read the Independent for this week, it was all about the ‘return of the Zimbabwe dollar’.

BULAWAYO South MDC legislator, Eddie Cross
Former BULAWAYO South MDC-T legislator, Eddie Cross

Since Monday this has been the only subject that is being discussed. It is a pity because SI 142 was about a whole raft of measures and not just the abandonment of the multi-currency system we have used since 2009.

The real target of these measures was the exchange rate. This was not an issue when we were living in a fairy tale land where the RTGS dollar and the Bond Note currencies were accepted as being 1:1 USD.

But when the Minister of Finance in October 2018 announced the obvious to all and sundry, that there was no relationship between what are local currencies and the US dollar, we all went into panic mode.

We are strange creatures – the Reserve Bank Governor was saying – ‘no, the Bond is not a currency and it is on a par with the US dollar’. We accepted that fiction because we could not imagine what would happen if this were not so. We all had piles of the stuff in our bank accounts and felt rich!!

A currency is simply a means of exchange and used for the accumulation of wealth and as a store of value – nothing else. The stuff we are using as an electronic means of exchange, the so called RTGS dollar, was just the electronic version of the real thing.

However, its value is what the economic players think it should be and if it is not backed by anything – it is just an entry in the books. If you cannot draw it out of your account in USD whenever you want – then it is not USD. If you cannot go to your bank and tender 1000 bond notes and ask for 1000 USD in return – then the one is not equal to the other.

But the situation was much worse than that – we had R$23 billion dollars in our bank accounts in various forms. We were borrowing money from the local money market to fill a huge hole in our budget – the ‘fiscal deficit’ was out of control. If allowed to continue, a collapse was inevitable.

Through the means of this artificial exchange rate we were taking half the earnings or more of the private sector and paying them in RTGS at the rate of 1:1. This meant we were taking billions of dollars in real money from the exporters and using this stream of real money to subsidise everything else – fuel, bread, cooking oil, cars for Ministers and MP’s, you name it. We were strangling our most productive and competitive industries and if this had continued they would have died and we would be left with nothing,

It could not continue and the new Government sworn in after the July 2018 elections was well aware of this. The new Minister of Finance, has approached these problems systematically – in my view too slowly, although what they did on Monday was certainly not slow – it was a big bang.

So what has he done to correct matters? He has confirmed that what we had in our accounts in July 2018, was not US dollars. He has accepted that the RTGS and the Bond Note are distinct currencies, operating in tandem with the other currencies in use.

He has widened the tax base and eliminated the fiscal deficit and he has allowed companies and individuals to hold any hard currency they have in a bank account and guaranteed that these balances will not be violated as they were in the past.

He has established an interbank market for foreign currency and our local currencies and has decreed that this will operate on a willing seller/willing buyer basis. He has determined that any foreign currency retained by the Reserve Bank for use, will be paid for in local currency at the interbank rate.

Under this program, the next step would be the reintroduction of a new local currency to facilitate market transactions. This new currency would be carefully managed and controlled by a ‘Monetary Policy Committee’ of persons of repute and experience and its value determined by market forces on the interbank exchange.

But a new crisis, of our own making, has intervened. When the interbank market was at first established, the RBZ Governor, fearing runaway inflation, felt that the rate of exchange should be at least managed and he tried to do the King Canute thing, and instructed banks not to trade at more than 2,50 RTGS/Bond to one USD.

They could not defend this position because they had virtually no reserves and when the open market rate moved, they were forced to follow – but very little money was attracted to the market and the gap between the interbank rates and the open market widened.

This created opportunities for a thing called arbitrage – a market system where players make a margin on sales of a commodity. Speculators started to trade the RTGS against the US dollar and as the rate rose, they were able to make money both on the margin and on the fact that the rates were climbing. With the great majority of money being traded on the open market and the interbank market failing to attract funds, it was the open market rate that dictated import prices.

The consequence was that prices began to rise very rapidly. Everybody was feeding on the system – exporters were receiving not just the bank rate for the funds relinquished to the Reserve Bank but they were selling surplus foreign exchange on the open market and making huge premiums. The Banks were also playing the game and there were constant allegations that the RBZ was part of the problem. The Diaspora and beneficiaries thought it was Christmas.

When the distinction was first drawn between the US dollar and the RTGS, the rate on the open market was 1,4 to 1. In weeks it went to 7 to 1. Then it fell back to 2,8 to 1. Once the speculators got into the game it started to move and by the 14th June 2019, the open market rate was 14 or even 16 to 1. Had it been allowed to continue our inflation rate would have accelerated to levels where it would have destroyed the value of the local currency and made life simply impossible for the average person. It had to stop.

So SI 142 on Monday this week. To reinforce these measures, the SI takes half of the foreign exchange the RBZ is receiving from all quarters and puts these funds on the Bank inter market – increasing supply. Overnight interest rates were raised to 50 per cent, economists wanted 80 to 100 per cent. The purpose being to stop speculators borrowing money and buying foreign currency in the open market.

Have these measures worked – very much so, as the open market rate of exchange has halved to 6 to 8 to 1 for the US dollar. This has a major impact on everyone who lives here – prices in the market will fall as cheaper imports arrive and the real value of every RTGS dollar earned will be doubled. Inflation should be halted in its tracks in the next few months. That is the real news.

The other thing that has received almost no publicity is the decision to ring fence what is called ‘legacy debts’ which the Bank estimates could reach US$1,2 billion. These are liabilities which had been incurred by companies in hard currency that they expected to be expunged by the Bank at 1:1.

Had these organisations had to go to the market – even the interbank market, they would be bankrupted. So the Reserve Bank has agreed to take over these liabilities in RTGS at 1 to 1 and to then ring fence these assets and liabilities to be expunged when the resources are available.

The eligible companies are asked to transfer the equivalent of their external liabilities in local RTGS at 1 to 1 when seeking relief through this mechanism. Not a good thing but at least it deals with the immediate problems.

Eddie Cross is a former opposition MDC MP for Bulawayo South