President Robert Mugabe’s embattled administration has for the first time admitted printing money in the form of a virtual currency through the Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS), acknowledging this cannot be backed by United States dollar bank notes imported by local banks, the Financial Gazette’s Companies & Markets (C&M) can report.
Finance and Economic Development Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, made the disclosures in Parliament. He said: “Government funds its employees’ salary accounts through electronic transfers over the Real Time Gross Settlement platform. On the contrary, employees would want to obtain physical cash from the banks. This misalignment is the greatest cause of queues at banks for cash as both the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) and banks would be required to withdraw foreign exchange from their nostro accounts to meet local cash demand.”
Nostro accounts are accounts held by local banks with offshore financial institutions. They are used predominantly to settle international obligations, including import of goods. Banks have used their nostro accounts to import US dollar bank notes but these have always been used to support real US dollar bank balances for local deposits.
Government had always been denying that it has been creating or printing its own money to pay wages and salaries for its strong workforce of more than 300 000. The salary bill is gobbling more than 90 percent of revenue, leaving very little for infrastructure development.
The printing of money through the RTGS platform can only be backed by local currency, rather than foreign currency which has to be earned through exports of other foreign currency receipts. It would therefore appear the introduction of bond notes, despite public protestations, was meant primarily to fund the virtual currency, which has been described by some analysts as phantom money.
The reason for government resorting to creation of money in the domestic economy has largely been its huge budget deficits, which it started incurring following the collapse of the inclusive government in 2013.
During the inclusive government, then finance minister, Tendai Biti, insisted that government would only spend what it collected in the form of revenue under his famous “we eat what we gather” policy.
He managed to keep government expenditure under check, despite protestations from colleagues, ensuring stability in the economy.
But since the collapse of the inclusive government, the budget deficit problem, which largely funded recurrent expenditure, emerged. In fact, the size of the civil service suddenly shot up, increasing the salary and wage bill.
Although Chinamasa has tried to curb this cost by reducing the size of the civil service through retrenchments, he has faced opposition from Cabinet colleagues.
Chinamasa has indicated that government employment costs are currently at over 93 percent of tax revenue. When government’s debt of over 40 percent of tax revenue is added to this cost, government expenditure far outstrips revenue.
“This shows that we are living beyond our means through borrowing from the market by way of Treasury Bills that translate into government overdraft at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe on maturity,” Chinamasa said.
There is indeed an increasing risk that the country may now be drifting towards an inflationary crisis.
Zimbabwe’s inflation was in deflation since October 2014, but since last year, especially after introduction of bond notes, there has been a significant increase in basic food prices.
Annual inflation rate went into positive territory for the first time in over two years in February this year, gaining 0,71 percentage points on the January 2017 rate of -0,7 percent to 0,6 percent.
It went up to 0,21 percent in March, sparking fears among economists of a return to the previous hyperinflationary period that saw inflation reaching a peak of 231 million percent in August 2008.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has projected that the country’s inflation is likely to hit three percent this year and 6,6 percent next year. Given the situation on the ground, this could be a generous assessment from the IMF because it could get worse.
Economists told C&M that the situation is likely to worsen because of the impending elections set for next year.
Prosper Chitambara, an economist with Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, said: “The economy is in a roller coaster. It’s in a crisis which will require bold structural reforms. Government knows what’s needed to be done but the will and commitment does not exist.”
He said there were foreign currency leakages because hard cash was going out of the country and not coming back.
“Businesses that are looking to receive money from outside the country are opening accounts outside the country because they have no confidence in government policies and the banking system. With elections coming up next year, we are going to see acceleration of leakages. Inflation, it’s a reflection of bond notes or it pushes inflation factors. In fact, there is a lot of temptation to print more bond notes outside the US$200 million threshold,” he said.
He was referring to the announced $200 million limit in bond notes by the central bank, whose basis is an alleged US$200 facility from the African Export and Import Bank to support exports.
The liquidity squeeze in the country has left many companies unable to pay foreign suppliers, driving many out of business.
According to the IMF, Zimbabwe’s economy is likely to grow by two percent this year.
In March this year, government reviewed Zimbabwe’s economic growth projection from 1,7 percent announced in the 2017 National Budget to 3,7 percent, on the back of a good agricultural season and firming metal prices.
An independent economist, Tinashe Masunda, said: “Zimbabwe has run out of foreign currency resulting in the country completely losing the ability to pay for imports. This means that productivity will continue to suffer as companies fail to access vital inputs because there’s no foreign currency to pay for them. As long as government continues to do things that discourage both local and foreign investment into the productive sector, the situation can only get worse.”
The country abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009 and adopted a multi-currency regime to escape hyperinflation.
But the foreign currency has been disappearing from the financial market, prompting the central bank to introduce bond notes last year. However, the bond notes appear to be disappearing from the banking system as well.
The severe cash crisis has resulted in banks limiting the amount of cash depositors can withdraw. Most banks have also suspended dispensing money through automated teller machines. In some cases, depositors spend days in bank queues but fail to access cash.
The situation is likely to persist until government urgently fixes the country’s economic fundamentals.
Chinamasa told Parliament that one of the reasons for the shortage of bank notes was that businesses were not banking cash. This, he said, has resulted in long queues for cash at banks.
“This indiscipline is counter-productive and cannot continue to be tolerated. Money is like blood, it needs to circulate for the economy to survive. Money should be circulating in order to deal with queues at banks,” said Chinamasa.
“To date, three traders have been hauled before the courts for not banking their sales proceeds in line with the laws of the country from as far back as June 2016. They have all pleaded guilty to the offence and they now await their sentences,” he said.
Chinamasa implored depositors to make use of plastic money. This, inevitably, would ensure that there is no pressure for the RBZ to print more bond notes to support cash it is creating through the RTGS.
He said: “The factors underpinning cash challenges are beyond banks. Banks find themselves in a difficult position where they are compelled to ration cash withdrawals in order to meet their customers’ demands. Banks have therefore continued to explore pragmatic measures to meet their customers’ demand for cash.
“Government, through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, is advocating for the use of plastic money in order to ameliorate the mismatch or gap between electronic salary transfers and the demand for cash from banks. Embracing plastic money preserves foreign exchange in the nostro accounts for use for foreign payments whilst at the same time mitigating against non-banking of cash by traders.