Would you like to be a millionaire? Of course you would – who wouldn’t, right? Actually the answer to this question may be more complicated than you might think (see for instance Sgroi et al (2017) on the economics of happiness: see linked article below), but, generally speaking, most people would answer positively to this question.
What if I told you, however, that you could become a millionaire (actually, scratch that – think big – make that “trillionaire”) overnight and be deeply unhappy about it? If you don’t believe me see what happened to Zimbabwe 10 years ago, when irresponsible money printing and fiscal easing drove the country’s economy to staggering hyperinflation (see the blogs A remnant of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe and Fancy a hundred trillion dollar note?. At the peak of the crisis, prices were increasing by a factor of 130 each year. I have in my office a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note (see below) which I show in my lectures when I talk about hyperinflation to my first year Economics for Business students (if you are one of them, make sure not to miss it next February at UEA!). How much is this 100 trillion note worth? Nothing (except, may be, for collectors). It has been withdrawn from circulation as it ended up not even being worth the cost of the paper on which it was printed.
The Zimbabwean economy managed to pull itself out of this spiral of economic death, partly by informally replacing its hyperinflationary currency with the US greenback, and partly by keeping its fiscal spending under control and reverting to more sane economic policy making. That lasted until 2013, after which the government launched a Zimbabwean digital currency (known as “Zollar”) that had a nominal value set equal to a US dollar; and forced its exporters to exchange their greenbacks for Zollars. It then started spending these USD to finance a very ambitious and unsustainable programme of fiscal expansion.
The Economist published yesterday a story that shows the results of this policy – wild price increases and empty supermarket shelves are both back. According to the newspaper’s report:
At a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, the finance minister is staring aghast at a pack of nappies. ‘This is absolutely ridiculous!’, exclaims Mthuli Ncube. ‘$49!’ A manager says it cost $23 two weeks ago, before pointing out other eye-watering items such as $20 Coco Pops. […] Over the past two weeks zollars have been trading at as little as 17 cents to the dollar. The devaluation has led to a surge in prices—and not just in imported goods like nappies. Football fans attending the Zimbabwe v Democratic Republic of Congo game on October 16th were shocked to learn that ticket prices had doubled on match day.
How long will it take for the 100 trillion Zollar to make its appearance again? We shall find out. I am sure Zimbabweans will be less than thrilled!
Articles and Report
- A fist full of zollars: Zimbabwe’s shops are empty and prices are soaring
The Economist (28/10/18)
- Shelves Empty as Specter of Hyperinflation Stalks Zimbabwe
Bloomberg, Paul Wallace, Godfrey Marawanyika and Desmond Kumbuka (12/10/18)
- imbabwe currency crisis: No cash, no bread, no KFC
BBC News, Andrew Harding (12/10/18)
- Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe: money demand, seigniorage and aid shocks
Journal of Applied Economics, Tara McIndoe-Calder (Volume 50, Issue 15, 18/9/17)
- Understanding Happiness
A CAGE Policy Report: Social Market Foundation, Daniel Sgroi, Thomas Hills, Gus O’Donnell, Andrew Oswald and Eugenio Proto (January 2017)
- Using an AS/AD diagram, explain the concept of hyperinflation. How can irresponsible fiscal policy-making lead to hyperinflation?
- What are the effects of hyperinflation on the people who live in the affected countries? Search the web for examples and case studies, and use them to support your answer.
- Once it has started, what policies can be used to fight hyperinflation? Use examples to support your answer.
- How does speculation affect hyperinflation?
In the late 2000s, Zimbabwe experienced hyperinflation. As a post on this site in January 2009 said, two estimates of the inflation rate were made: one of 5 sextillion per cent (5 and 21 zeros); the other of 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion per cent (65 and 107 zeros). In January 2009, in a last attempt to save the Zimbabwean currency, a new series of banknotes was issued, including a Z$100 trillion note.
Prices were typically being adjusted at least twice a day and people had to carry large bags of money around even to buy a couple of simple items. The currency was virtually worthless. As the Guardian article below states:
Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe left pensions, wages and investments worthless and spread poverty as everyday items became unaffordable. It also caused severe cash shortages, because the government could not afford to print bank notes to keep pace with inflation.
The solution was to allow other currencies, mainly the US dollar and the South African rand, to be used alongside the local currency. Although the Zimbabwean currency was still legal tender, it effectively went out of use. Prices stabilised and since then inflation has been in single figures.
But many people still have stocks of the virtually worthless old currency, either in cash or in savings accounts. The Zimbabwean government has now said that it will exchange Zimbabwean dollar notes for US dollars at the rate of US$1 = Z$250tn (250,000,000,000). People have until September to do so. Up to now, they have mainly been used to sell as souvenirs to tourists! For people with Zimbabwean dollars in their bank accounts, they will get a minimum of US$5. For amounts beyond Z$175,000tn they will get an additional US dollar for each Z$35,000tn.
Historical examples of hyperinflation
As case study 15.5 in Economics 9e’s MyEconLab points out, several countries experienced hyperinflation after the First World War. In Austria and Hungary prices were several thousand times their pre-war level. In Poland they were over 2 million times higher, and in the USSR several billion times higher.
Germany in the 1920s
But even these staggering rates of inflation seem insignificant beside those of Germany. Following the chaos of the war, the German government resorted to printing money, not only to meet its domestic spending requirements in rebuilding a war-ravaged economy, but also to finance the crippling war reparations imposed on it by the allies in the Treaty of Versailles.
From mid 1921 the rate of monetary increase soared and inflation soared with it. By autumn 1923 the annual rate of inflation had reached a mind-boggling 7,000,000,000,000 per cent! As price increases accelerated, people became reluctant to accept money: before they knew it, the money would be worthless. People thus rushed to spend their money as quickly as possible. But this in turn further drove up prices. (The note shown above is in old billions, where a billion was a million million. So the note was for 50,000,000,000,000 marks.)
For many Germans the effect was devastating. People’s life savings were wiped out. Others whose wages were not quickly adjusted found their real incomes plummeting. Many were thrown out of work as businesses, especially those with money assets, went bankrupt. Poverty and destitution were widespread.
By the end of 1923 the German currency was literally worthless. In 1924, therefore, it was replaced by a new currency – one whose supply was kept tightly controlled by the government.
Serbia and Montenegro 1993–5
After the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992, the economy of the remaining part of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) collapsed. The government relied more and more on printing money to finance public expenditure. Prices soared.
The government attempted to control the inflation by imposing price controls. But these simply made production unprofitable and output fell further. The economy nosedived. Unemployment exceeded 30 per cent.
In October 1993, the government created a new currency, the new dinar, worth one million old dinars. In other words, six zeros were knocked off the currency. But this did not solve the problem. Between October 1993 and January 1994, prices rose by 5 quadrillion per cent (5 and fifteen zeros). Normal life could not function. Shops ran out of produce; savings were wiped out; barter replaced normal market activity.
At the beginning of January 1994 a ‘new new dinar’ was introduced, worth 1 billion new dinars. On 24 January this was replaced by a ‘novi dinar’ pegged 1 to 1 against the Deutsche Mark. This was worth approximately 13 million new new dinars. The novi dinar remained pegged to the Deutsche Mark and inflation was quickly eliminated.
Zimbabweans get chance to swap ‘quadrillions’ for a few US dollars The Guardian (13/6/15)
175 Quadrillion Zimbabwean Dollars Are Now Worth $5 Bloomberg, Godfrey Marawanyika and Paul Wallace (11/6/15)
Zimbabwe is paying people $5 for 175 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (12/6/15)
Zimbabwe dollars phased out BBC News Africa (12/6/15)
Zimbabwe ditches its all but worthless currency Financial Times (12/6/15)
Zeroing in Thomson Reuters, Breaking News, Edward Hadas (12/6/15)
Could inflation fell Mugabe? BBC News (28/7/08)
ZIMBABWE: Inflation at 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent IRIN (21/1/09)
The Worst Episode of Hyperinflation in History: Yugoslavia 1993-94 Roger Sherman Society, Thayer Watkins (31/7/08)
- Why have several governments in the past been prepared to allow hyperinflation to develop?
- Itemise the types of cost imposed on people by hyperinflation.
- Does anyone gain from hyperinflation?
- What are the solutions to hyperinflation?
- What difficulties are there in eliminating hyperinflation? What costs are imposed on people in the process?
- Why might the causes of hyperinflation be described as always political?