DAYS before the introduction of bond notes, deep-rooted uncertainty has gripped the nation as the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) takes a trajectory that might make or break the nation depending on whether it would be allowed to enjoy autonomy in discharging its mandate by those who wield political influence, the Financial Gazettecan report.
A siege mood has enveloped a shattered populace in the wake of the impending bond notes, described by President Robert Mugabe as a surrogate currency to the United States dollar — the dominant unit in the basket of currencies underpinning Zimbabwe’s multi-currency regime.
It has become inevitable that the monetary authorities should act.
The liquidity crisis has worsened and business has slowed down to a crawl across all sectors of the economy, such that the growth projected this year by Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa as well as the slump forecast by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could be revised downwards once again.
The IMF projects the economy to shrink by -0,3 percent, from an earlier forecast of 1,4 percent.
As expected, government’s forecasts are slightly higher.
Whereas Chinamasa had projected the economy to grow by 2,7 percent this year, he downgraded his figure to 1,2 percent in his mid-term fiscal policy statement.
Pessimists are predicting chaos in the aftermath of the introduction of the bonds notes, warning that they could trigger a resurgence of the 2008 currency black market.
But optimists see things differently.
They believe that a lot would depend on how the central bank would conduct itself going into the future.
Judicious management of the Africa Export Import Bank (Afreximbank) facility that supports the bond notes at levels at par or below the US$200 million cap may not upset the markets, according to optimists, but incentivise exporters into producing more as they would be entitled to a five percent incentive based on the value of their exports.
A lot might also depend on how the RBZ would enforce discipline in the market by maintaining a fine balance between moral suasion and use of legal tools at its disposal.
As of yesterday, desperate retailers, especially those that are still to migrate to point of sale (PoS) machines, were now agitating for the quick introduction of the bond notes, which they hope would ease the cash crunch and turn around their fortunes.
RBZ governor, John Mangudya, admitted over the weekend that even banks were now in a precarious position, having revised downwards cash withdrawal limits for their customers on many occasions.
Bank queues are getting longer by the day, as financial institutions are struggling to dispense cash in the wake of the tightening liquidity situation.
While there has been a huge increase in transactions going through PoS machines, the bulk of the population is still using cash in their daily chores, thus putting pressure on the available resource.
There is also a backlog of telegraphic transfers, commonly known as TTs, because banks’ nostro accounts are running dry.
A nostro account refers to an account that a bank holds in foreign currency in another bank.
As nostro accounts balances deplete, there is now a huge backlog of TTs still to be processed. Resultantly, companies are struggling to retool; acquire imported raw materials and bring into the country products that are not manufactured locally.
Consequently, there has been a spike in prices as predatory retailers take advantage of the emerging shortages of some products to make a killing.
Agitated by an economy that has run out of everything from cash to ideas, the ordinary man in the street and captains of industry and commerce are in a quandary, torn between embracing the bond notes or rejecting them.
Mangudya — the man carrying the nation’s hopes based on the sincerity he has demonstrated over the years — made his final plea to calm the markets at the weekend.
He was adamant yesterday that his strategy was different from the one employed during the era of bearer cheques when the RBZ had the latitude to run the printing press.
That freedom ended in 2008 when the Zimbabwe dollar crushed out of circulation because of hyperinflation — wiping out lifelong savings.
At the time, bearer cheques were printed in huge volumes to cope with the high demand for Zimbabwe dollar banknotes although that did very little to improve the situation.
Mangudya has been busy engaging stakeholders, including members of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) whom he shall be meeting this morning in Harare to explain his intentions and rally them to support the bond notes.
The apex bank would also be proceeding with an aggressive publicity campaign to market the bond notes in the next few days.
“My message to ZNCC is that they need to enhance production and productivity to transform the economy,” he said.
“(I will tell them) that all the policy measures we are pursuing are meant to support business. Retailers are quite knowledgeable of the fact that bond notes will increase their business while at the same time preserving foreign exchange for purposes of raw materials and productive imports that are necessary for the retailers’ businesses for purposes of importing raw materials,” he added.
Regardless of his assurance, the bond notes have sharply divided opinion.
Retailers, among them the Retail Association of Zimbabwe (RAZ) and the Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers (CZR) have thrown their full weight behind them.
RAZ chairman, Temba Ndebele, warned this week that the economy would contract in perpetuity if it continues on the current path.
“Zimbabwe is at a crossroads now. It is nose-diving in terms of confidence and trust. The success of the East Asian economies was never based on dollarising their economies. The biggest advantage that any country can have is its currency. We are the only country using the US dollar and we must address this at a certain stage,” said Ndebele.
“What relevance does the United States have for us to base our economy on US dollars? The relevance is remote. We need a weaker, competitive currency to be able to compete. We must give the central bank a chance. The governor has said he will have two weeks to explain how it will work. We cannot be prisoners of the past; this country has been angry for 16 years. We should take away emotion in our debating.”
CZR president, Denford Mutashu, weighed in saying most of their members were calling for the introduction of the bond notes without further delay as the market has been in waiting mode for a long time.
“Retailers thus far expect a positive outlook if the bond notes are introduced as it looks like they will also improve the liquidity crisis that has hit the country over a long time. The fact that none can externalise them just like one cannot externalise the Zambian Kwacha, for example, will ensure there is steady currency in circulation at a given time,” added Mutashu.
With psychological scars left by the demise of the country’s own Zimbabwe dollar currency in 2008 still fresh in many people’s minds, the bond notes have rekindled sad memories of hyperinflation, estimated by the IMF at the time to have reached 500 billion percent.
All this is happening at a time when employment in the manufacturing sector has slumped to 85 000 this year, from a peak of 200 000 in 2009, according to the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), which outrightly rejected the bond notes this week.
Government says 4 600 firms have collapsed since 2009, leaving 55 000 people out of their jobs.
In its submission to the Ministry of Finance for the 2017 National Budget, CZI said there was widespread panic across industries over the pending introduction of the bond notes and warned that there had been an overwhelming rejection of the currency among its members.
“Confidence is too low for the introduction of the bond notes. We therefore recommend the cancellation of the plan and have them replaced by the rand,” CZI said.
Mangudya has, however, stuck to his guns that the bond notes will be used to support exporters who are critical to the generation of foreign currency, which is now in short supply in Zimbabwe.
He has also been adamant that the bond notes will trade at par with the US dollar and that no one will be forced to use them as the multi-currency regime will remain in force.
Gift Muganhu, an economist, said there was chaos in the markets as evidenced by the panic withdrawals.
The situation has seen cash barons emerging out of the woodworks to facilitate cash withdrawals at a premium of 10 percent interest as people desperately try to get their US dollar savings out of banks.
“This will go a gear up when reality strikes. We do not only rely on our own internal resources financially, but we have had offshore funds coming into the market for lending because of confidence. Bond notes will be a serious risk to international investors. So I see the worsening of the liquidity situation because we will not receive some of the funds we have been receiving.
“I also see the possibility of subdued activity on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange because foreign investors will be jittery,” said Muganhu.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) hit out at authorities this week for ignoring the real fundamentals behind an economic crisis that has showed no signs of relenting in the past four years.
At the heart of the turbulence has been the deteriorating liquidity situation, which the ZCTU said government was doing very little to address.
“The major problem is well known to everyone that the country is not producing and industry is on its knees. The current RBZ chefs are repeating the same measures that were employed before and failed to work,” ZCTU secretary general, Japhet Moyo told the Financial Gazette this week.
“They (government) have skewed priorities and think printing pseudo dollars is the solution. In fact, the introduction of the bond notes will worsen the plight of workers as more companies will sink due to failure to access real money to rejuvenate their operations,” he said.
An economist at the Labour and Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe, Naome Chakanya, warned that a black market for US dollars could resurface, thus creating more problems for the economy, including inflation.
“Some are going to accept them, some are going to reject them; others will be frog-marched to accept the bond notes since the cash crisis is worsening,” said Chakanya.
With economists strongly asserting that the currency would not tackle the structural challenges confronting Zimbabwe’s economy, a United States-based economics professor, Steve Hanke, who was one of the biggest critics of Zimbabwe’s bearer cheques during the country’s hyperinflationary era, wrote on Twitter this week: “I warned Kupukile Mlambo of RBZ in May that Zimbabwe bond notes would create chaos. The RBZ is learning the meaning of chaos.”
Mlambo is one of the two deputy governors at the RBZ.