Zimbabwe turned 40 on April 18. Amid the economic struggles of this week there was talk of the country phasing out the US dollar – a move denied by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe on its website.
CNBC Africa asked John Robertson, an independent economist based in Harare who has spent more than half a century studying the economy, for some background on currency issues in Zimbabwe. We also asked him was the old Zimbabwe dollar really stronger than the US dollar at independence in 1980? These were his thoughts:
“The value of every currency in the world is supported by, and dependent on, the productive capacity of the country in relation to the productive capacity of its trading partners. The capacity measurement has to properly take into account the volume and quality of the goods and services produced as well as their cost competitiveness. In Zimbabwe, in those first years after 1980, we used to produce commodities efficiently enough to make profits from their sale abroad, even though the revenue we could get for them was set by international market price mechanisms. For our consumer goods exports, such as clothing, footwear, a wide range of processed foods, transistor radios, school textbooks and dozens of other things, we successfully competed for sales on foreign markets. We also exported processed raw materials, such as steel sections, cotton yarn, shredded and blended tobacco, roasted coffee beans, sawn timber, dimension stone, irrigation pipes and couplings, plus lots of other components, all in competition with other suppliers.
However, government interference caused lots of cost increases. Minimum wages were doubled and frequently adjusted, devaluations were necessary to permit the Zimbabwe dollar earnings to continue covering rising costs, license fees were charged and project approvals were needed for any company wanting to make a change to its mix of products. Import licenses were confiscated and given to emergent business people, who re-sold them to the companies from which they had been taken, adding to costs. The whole investment climate became difficult. The IMF tried to intervene with its Structural Adjustment Programme, but that supported retailers much more than manufacturers as, after ESAP, whatever anyone wanted could be imported?
Then we had Land Reform. The collateral value of farmland was reduced from billions of dollars to zero. Skilled farmers were dispossessed, small-scale farmers were given the land free, but land with no market value, over which the farmers had no security of tenure, was of no value as collateral for bank loans. The small-scale farmers were occasionally lucky enough to feed their families and have small surpluses for sale, but they never grew enough the feed the country. We have had to meet a big bill for imported food every year since Land Reform.
Even now, nothing has been proposed that offers the slightest improvement to our shocking investment climate. Government vigorously protests that it is making major policy changes, but they absolutely refuse to accept that it has brought productive capacity to its knees and has destroyed the country’s relationships with the rest of the world. We cannot pay our debts, cannot attract investment and can now meet very few of our own needs.
Government wants to be completely in charge of all investment decisions and seems to believe that it can direct business sectors to simply produce more. As a result, we now have an economy that cannot support a currency, the value of which is stable and worthy of respect. The black-market rate for the US dollar is now Z$49 to one, the inter-bank market rate is Z$25:US$1. It seems that the currency deals carried out are to externalise US$, not place orders for imports that might be impossible to sell. March inflation has just been published – the annual rate is 676,4% and prices went up 26,6% in one month. We need dramatic changes to restore confidence, but ZanuPF has no intention of changing anything.
On your last question, the value of a Zimbabwe dollar in 1980, it is true that you needed US$1,60 to buy one Zimbabwe dollar. That exchange rate is often misinterpreted as evidence that the Zimbabwe dollar was stronger than the US dollar. That is not true. The size of a unit of measurement does not indicate strength or weakness. An inch is not stronger than a centimetre, a metre is not stronger than a yard. When Rhodesia was in the Sterling Area, the Rhodesian pound was worth the same as a British pound. The pound weakened during some difficult years for the UK in the 1970s, and Rhodesia was overcoming sanctions so well that the Rhodesian dollar, which started off as equal to ten shillings, appeared to be strengthening against a weakening pound. So relative values come into it. The pound soon recovered under Margaret Thatcher and at that time, you needed US$2,40 to buy one pound. Today you can buy a pound for US$1.24.
The question of how practical it is to put our faith in our own currency calls for recognition of all these points. What we have done, and the policies are still being vigorously defended, has destroyed any chance of getting the confidence and investment inflows needed to rebuild productive capacity, so a currency based on such a weakened economy will remain weak as well. And a weak currency will simply keep falling in value. Now that the whole world is in trouble and many other poor countries deserve help much more than we do, Zimbabwe is going to have to wake up to the need for self-help and self-sufficiency very quickly. If we don’t, we will soon be in much more trouble than ever before!”