Zimbabwe's financial system increasingly resembles a house of cards. Were one card to give way -- for instance, if South Africa's power utility, Eskom, were to have the temerity to suggest that Zimbabwe actually pays for the electricity that it's supplying the country -- the entire edifice would collapse.
To put it another way, the government is bust. It is again printing money to cover its spiralling costs, and inflation is rising. And given that there's an election looming in 2018, Zimbabwe's ruling party, ZANU-PF doesn't want to cut back. Far from it, it wants to carry on spending, as fast as it can.
The rot goes back to the early 2000s. ZANU-PF profligacy had been fuelled by a continuous cycle of simply printing more money, and resultant runaway inflation. Mega-inflation meant that ordinary people lost their pensions and whatever savings they had, as the Zimbabwe dollar lost its value and people resorted to barter or the use of other currencies. Ultimately, the government faced no choice but to accept reality. In 2008 it scrapped the Zimbabwean dollar in favour of a basket of other currencies, although within a short time, this in effect meant the reign of the US dollar.
Dollarisation allowed for the pursuit of more rational policies by the coalition Government of National Unity that followed the disputed 2008 election. However, its control of the electoral machinery ensured that ZANU-PF won a resounding victory in the 2013 election. Within a short space of time, it returned to its familiar policy mix of profligacy, corruption and populist economics.
Yet ZANU-PF faced major problems. Above all, dollarisation meant that the cost of Zimbabwe's exports on international markets was high. Worse, the dramatic collapse of agricultural production since the early 2000s (following the appropriation of white farms) alongside the decimation of the country's manufacturing industries meant that there was relatively little to export anyway. Tobacco production has recovered a little, but the quality is less than it used to be, so returns are relatively less.
Meanwhile, government insistence that mines should be 51 percent Zimbabwean-owned has done nothing to entice inward investment or boost exports. In short, the capacity of the economy to earn US dollars by selling goods externally has fallen dramatically, and the supply of money circulating within the country has dried up. Unemployment stands at around 90 percent.
Many Zimbabweans spend their bank balances on consumer goods as quickly as possible rather than attempting to "save".
President Robert Mugabe's latest response has been to replace finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, who had been warning of the structure's fragility in ever more urgent tones. The new finance minister is Ignatius Chombo, a party loyalist, who will not brook any talk of need for structural reform.
The bond notes
Faced with a looming crisis, the ZANU-PF government has resorted to three key strategies.
One has been the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank's issue of bond notes (of different denominations). Officially, they're designed to swell the amount of money in circulation within the country. The problem is that, apart from having no value outside the country, nobody trusts them, as they have been issued by a ZANU-PF government, and it was this government that presided over the hyperinflation.
ZANU-PF's announcement that it was issuing bond notes was met with a run on the banks, as depositors sought to withdraw dollars as fast as they could. Their assumption was that this was a government ploy to reintroduce the Zimbabwean dollar. The Reserve Bank responded by limiting the number of dollars individuals could withdraw.
People are reluctant to use the notes. But they're still sometimes forced to accept them because of the sheer shortage of "real" money. As a result, when they can, they rush off to the local bus station where they can sell them for dollars to currency traders -- albeit illegally.
The second strategy has been the rapid expansion of country's ability to manage electronic transactions. Its aim has been to expand the amount of money in circulation without using up "real" dollars.
Accordingly, government employees are now largely paid electronically. Similarly, government employees (and everyone else) now pay nearly all their bills within the country electronically. And Zimbabweans are rarely able to convert the notional sums of dollars they hold in the bank into real cash -- unless they make use of the currency traders in illegal transactions.
Meanwhile, with the rate of inflation continuing to rise combined with the widespread lack of faith in the banks, many Zimbabweans spend their bank balances on consumer goods as quickly as possible rather than attempting to "save". After all, if times get hard, you won't be able to get rid of your bond notes, but you may be able to sell your fridge.
Fanciful financial system
But it's the third strategy that the government has pursued that is really fuelling a fanciful financial system. Since 2013, government expenditure has steadily increased year by year, despite the country earning very little internationally. The ZANU-PF government may have hoped to fund this by its old trick of literally printing money, that is, by expanding the supply of bond notes.
But such was the negative popular sentiment that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe seems to have restricted their issue. Supposedly the issue of bond notes is backed by a USD$200 loan by the African Export-Import Bank, but no-one really knows how many have been issued because the central bank provides no information.
What the government has done instead is to fund its rising costs by issuing treasury bills (whereby it touts for loans on the capital market against promises of later redemption). No-one in their right mind would want to buy them, but Zimbabwe's banks today have little option. As inward investment into the country has dried up to a trickle, there is little else for them to spend their money on, and the interest rates that the government promises to pay are, at face value, attractively high.
The coalition government of national unity recorded budget surpluses for three of the four full years in which the opposition controlled the treasury. For its part, the ZANU-PF government recorded deficits of USD$186-million and USD$125-million in 2014 and 2015. Recently, the then finance minister Chinamasa projected a deficit of USD$1.41-billion for 2017. As of June 30, 2017, there was USD$2.5-billion worth of treasury bills on the issue.
In other words, the spending will continue. Zimbabwe's financial system is living on borrowed time and borrowed money. It will again end in financial ruin, as it did in 2008. But all ZANU-PF cares about is ensuring that it wins the next election and allowing its political elite to "eat".
This post first appeared in The Conversation on October 31, 2017.