13 April 2017

Zimbabwe: Cash Crisis - Bond Coins Rule the Roost

opinion

COINS used to be for the piggy banks used by kids to save money given by their parents for break-time snacks at school.

The adults normally kept a few of them when they got them from the grocery store as change.

One normally didn't have to keep lots of these because they broke pockets in the case of men, or made the handbag heavy for women.

When the piggy bank became full, a way was always sought to turn the coins into "real cash" -- crispy bank notes the parents would use to buy items of choice for the saving kids.

Banks did not normally accept large amounts of coins, and these coins were often changed for notes in grocery shops or other retailers who had use for them for change.

In crisis-torn Zimbabwe, things have changed; coins are no longer for children's piggy banks, they are now treasure items for adults who are failing to get cash from banks due to a worsening liquidity crunch in the economy.

Banks are now dispensing large amounts of coins to depositors because they have run out of notes to honour their obligations to the banking public.

At a bank in the capital last week, depositors waited in long queues to withdraw US$50 apiece in coins.

"I'm at least relieved," one depositor said, holding a plastic full of coins after a long wait in a bank queue.

Bank notes have become a scarce commodity and coins have taken their place as a medium of exchange in the country.

The $0,25 and $0,50 bond coins, which were introduced to ease a change problem that had been brought by use of hard currencies in 2009, have become choice monetary instruments in a liquidity-challenged economy.

Even the bond notes that were introduced in November with much consternation to boost liquidity in the economy are somewhat disappearing, along with US dollar notes which are now a much-sought-after commodity.

The $2 and $5 bond notes are becoming elusive on the formal market.

Economist, Christopher Mugaga, who is also the chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, said the situation in the country was increasingly getting desperate.

He warned that even the coins could soon become scarce on the market. He blamed the crisis on an erosion of confidence in the banking sector, which has resulted in people avoiding depositing their money with banks because of failure to withdraw it on demand.

"When the bond notes were introduced, pressure was on the notes. People are also not banking hence for a every dollar, only $0,05 goes back into the banking system. So when you go back to the bank, you will not find the notes," Mugaga said.

"If the problem persists, coins may also disappear," he warned.

Mugaga said the prevailing liquidity challenges were precipitated by the disequilibrium between deposits and cash holdings in banks.

"Liquidity challenges will not be solved by the bond notes," said Mugaga.

With the coins also facing an uncertain future, one would wonder if the cash crisis will ever end.

Coins, which are traditionally used by the public to purchase perishables like tomatoes on informal markets and for change, have become the major medium for transactions.

When the bond coins were introduced, the central bank had earmarked the lower denominations to ease change shortages in most retail shops.

Carrying US$100 worth of coins would not only expose the public to robberies but was also an inconvenience, analysts said.

Economist, Ashok Chakravarti, said the problem of public confidence in the banking sector would not be solved in the short term.

He said the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) need to restore trust in the banking sector to deal with the shortage of notes.

"What this signifies is the lack of trust in the banking sector; people are keeping cash even bond notes at home and this is not a problem that can be solved in the short term," Chakravarti said.

Chakravarti said the bond notes were suffering the fate of the US dollar since it was being traded pari pasu with the greenback on the official market.

"What Zimbabwe requires is a non externalisable currency, that is the (South African) rand, since the conditions for introducing our local currency are not there yet. We have to dump the US dollar because people are now treating the bond notes the same," Chakvarati said.

Chakravarti is one of the few people backing the rand as an alternative currency to ease cash shortages and to stem externalisation of US dollar notes.

At a recent bond notes sysmposium, he said economies that do not have strong links with the US Federal Reserve could not sustain the use of the US dollar as an official currency.

He said Zimbabwe had become the source of hard currency for the entire region hence its failure to maintain requisite liquidity in the economy.

Chakravarti said the liquidity challenges could be solved in the short-term depending on the success of the tobacco season which would bring the much-needed hard currency required to replenish the stocks of foreign currency in the economy and lessen pressure on banks.

But how bond notes suddenly disappeared from banks, less than six months after their introduction, is a question that requires honest answers.

The RBZ has so far injected $102 million worth of bond notes into the economy and would only stop injecting the surrogate currency when the $200 million facility provided by the African Export and Import Bank (Afreximbank) has been exhausted.

Although the RBZ has continuously allayed fears of a cash crisis, it is becoming apparent that Zimbabwe is faced with a problem deeper than what the authorities may want to admit. Having withdrawn coins from banks, the public hastily disposes the lower denominations to retailers.

Most automated teller machines (ATMs) have somewhat dried up since last year but some banks periodically make cash available to their clients through ATMs to lessen the pressure in the banking halls.

Most banks continue to issue notices on the reduction of daily limits, with Barclays Bank having reduced this to about US$50, from a weekly cash limit of US$350.

Many banks have been dispensing coins, with reports of clients withdrawing between $50 and $100 in coins.

On the streets, large sums of bond notes are found at money changers who are allegedly refusing bond coins for those who want to exchange them for rands or US dollars.

The cash back system in supermarkets, under which customers can get cash after buying from the outlets, has also faltered due to lack of cash.

Mobile banking agents like Ecocash and Telecash are also feeling the pinch of the liquidity crunch, with agents seen milling around during the day with no cash, while those with cash charge a 10 or 15 percent premium.

Unscrupulous retailers are also reportedly selling cash for a premium to desperate members of the public, while fuel stations have been caught up in the cycle of flooding bond coins.

RBZ deputy governor, Kupukile Mlambo, recently admitted that the $200 million ceiling for bond notes was insufficient to stem the cash crisis in the country.

The cash squeeze has impacted negatively consumer demand last week, most companies' end of year results cited a dire shortage of foreign currency as having impacted on performance in 2016.

Zimbabwe

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