Zimbabwe heading in the right direction at last


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The next step would be to create the conditions for growth, led by our export industries. This has proved to be difficult to get past the power brokers in the system. The reasons are many.

First we have to understand that a great many people in the State and the private sector were feeding off the system of exchange controls introduced by the Government in 2014. This entailed taking over US$3 billion a year from the earnings of all exporters and sweeping it into the Nostro (foreign currency) accounts of the Reserve Bank at the artificial rate of 1:1 with the US dollar.

Initially this was not a problem as real market exchange rates were at that level. But as the State printed money, so the real exchange rates widened and when inflation started driving up costs, exporters were unable to cover their costs from the proceeds of sales.

Exports began declining seriously in late 2018 and are now well below what they were a year ago. Some exporters were threatening to close operations until this destruction of value was remedied.

At the same time the availability of this very considerable sum of money (US$3 000 000 000) was available at the Reserve Bank at a third of its real value and the opportunities for corruption and allocations on a distorted basis expanded exponentially. Goods imported using these cheap dollars (fuel, wheat, cooking oil, pharmaceuticals and electricity) were available at a third of their real value and demand soared. Shortages and queues followed.

These conditions formed the backdrop to the monetary policy statement this week. I had hoped they would do the sensible thing – scrap exchange control and allow exporters to retain 100 per cent of their earnings, open up the money market to allow the formal sector to trade foreign currencies against the US dollar and the Rand and let the local currencies in circulation find their own level.

In my view had this been done the currency would have traded at 2:1 or slightly more, inflation would have declined to below 5 per cent per annum in the third quarter of the year and shortages would have vanished. In addition, our exporters would suddenly be flush with cash and exports would expand rapidly, we would become a relatively low cost tourist destination and remittances would increase. Rapid overall economic growth would have followed.

It was not to be and what we got was a partial fulfilment of the above. The Governor allowed the float, but retained the sweep of exporters’ earnings into the Reserve Bank accounts.

The only concession I saw was that the Bank would now pay 2,5:1 for this currency – reducing the massive destruction of value that the old system prescribed. He fixed the exchange rate at 2,5:1 against the US dollar and claimed he had enough reserves to hold the rate against this peg. This I doubt very much and I predict that the peg will not last long against real market forces.

But it is a massive step in the right direction and I am sure more reform is inevitable. The minister described the statement as a real step forward, but I cannot believe he is totally satisfied and the outcome will prove him right.

What the Reserve Bank Governor did not do was to clear up just how we were going to meet the very real need for a new local currency for exchange purposes. Anyone visiting Zimbabwe is always astonished at the long queues for currency outside all Banks.

This has to be dealt with and the only way to do so is to issue a new currency. I have argued that many times in recent months and almost always face opposition with people saying that the currency will collapse as it did in 2008. That is simply not true – our current currencies are in fact quite stable at about 4:1 and have remained so now for months.

Issuing a new currency about mid-year will strengthen the Reserve Bank and eliminate queues. It will also become a sound basis for pricing in local currency and make the multicurrency system redundant eventually. The key to success in that respect is the Ministers idea of a professional and independent Monetary Policy Committee to control and manage the new currency.

If we can get all this right, the people of Zimbabwe will do the rest. After all these years of corruption and failed policies, we deserve a new day.

By Eddie Cross

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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