Source: How Inflation May Topple Mugabe - WSJ.com
How Inflation May Topple MugabeBy ROGER BATE
July 7, 2008
Amid Zimbabwe's political violence is an economic lesson for anyone who doesn't keep an eye on inflation. The country's dictator, Robert Mugabe, who was sworn in on June 29 to his sixth term as president, has killed a few hundred of his opponents in the past few months, but his country's inflation is killing far more than that. With food aid only trickling back into the country and hundreds of thousands without enough cash to buy food, it was clear during a trip there last month that the crisis is deepening.
Consumer prices have more than doubled every month this year, in some cases doubling every week. A conservative estimate provided by Robertson Economic Information Services, a Southern African consultancy, says that prices are now three billion fold greater than seven years ago. That's right, billion. The exchange rate is currently an astronomical 90 billion Zimbabwe dollars to one U.S. dollar.
When I first went to Zimbabwe in 1996, $1 would buy you eight Zimbabwe dollars – a depreciation in exchange rate of perhaps 10 billion fold in 12 years. A decade ago, 500,000 Zimbabwe dollars would have bought you a house; today it can't buy you anything.
Incredibly, the situation on the ground is even worse than any available data can reflect. Inflation numbers are almost meaningless, with some reports showing that prices triple now on a daily basis, and for some food items prices double hourly. Hyperinflation is approaching the status of the post World War I Weimar Republic and post World War II Hungary, the worst recorded inflations in history.
Joshua Kipuru (not his real name, since he is concerned about reprisals for criticizing the government) told me via telephone that he gave up trying to get cash at his bank in Harare last week, since the lines were too long and slow moving. In the end Mr. Kipuru bought groceries with his debit card, which remarkably still works. The card, he explained, maxes out at just under 10 billion Zimbabwe dollars. So he had to run it 74 times, given that his food bill was nearly 730 billion Zimbabwe dollars.
Buying anything is a "bizarre experience," said Lucy Chimtengwende from Bulawayo, who spent $12 U.S. on lunch recently, with the bill in local currency being an astonishing 1.1 trillion Zimbabwe dollars. The menu had no prices on it, she told me by phone, prices are quoted to you and are constantly changing. And if you want to pay by check, good luck. Most proprietors don't accept them, and for those that do, the price is double, given the time it takes the vendor to receive payment.
Ms. Chimtengwende was breaking the law by paying for her meal in U.S. currency (or "greens" as they're known locally), as was the owner of the restaurant accepting it. But the economy is dollarizing as the local currency literally becomes worthless: "We are billionaires and can't buy anything," bemoaned Mr. Kipuru.
The only immediate hope to end to this inflationary nightmare is if the presses are turned off and the Mugabe government simply runs out of currency. There are local indicators of this; the lines to get cash from Harare's banks are getting longer by the day, suggesting a restriction in the supply of banknotes.
Mugabe's supplier has also reportedly cut off the printing press. In the weeks prior to the March 29 election, the German company, Giesecke & Devrient (G&D), ran its printing presses at maximum capacity, delivering 432,000 sheets of banknotes to Mugabe's government each week. The money, equivalent to nearly $173 trillion Zimbabwe dollars ($32 million at that time), was then dispersed among key constituencies, notably the security forces, as bribes.
After the March election, G&D kept the presses running, worsening the situation. Thankfully, after a public protest outside its German headquarters, critical articles in the German and international press, and pressure from the German foreign ministry, G&D announced on July 1 that it would stop printing the bank notes.
It is uncertain how much of a supply Mugabe's regime still has, but with the current inflation rate driving demand for cash skyward, it is possible the regime will run out of notes in weeks, unless another supplier, perhaps from China, steps in.
While the international community, the African Union and Zimbabwe's neighbors may not be able to stop Mugabe, the economy might. With no means of exchange, a barter economy is already taking hold with services being traded instead of cash. If Mugabe doesn't relinquish power soon, Zimbabwe will resemble a medieval economy – and a poor one at that – within weeks.
Mr. Bate is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.