Move comes amid drop in value of local dollar and persistent inflationary pressures
Zimbabwe is launching gold-backed digital tokens as President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government struggles to prop up the southern African nation’s inflation-wracked currency months before elections.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe said the tokens would “expand the value-preserving instruments available in the economy”, a reference to a sharp drop in the value of the Zimbabwe dollar. But the planned launch throws a spotlight on another round of currency chaos driven by the ruling Zanu-PF party’s use of money printing ahead of elections this summer.
The Zimbabwe dollar has lost more than half its value since the end of last year to reach about 2,200 against the US dollar in the country’s parallel market, compared with an official rate of about Z$1,000 that is derived from foreign exchange auctions to importers.
Now Harare is betting on the success of the digital investment, hoping that its backing with gold will damp price pressures in a country that has suffered regular rounds of hyperinflation. The launch on Monday will follow the issuance last July of physical gold coins as stores of value.
Zimbabwe produced 35 tonnes of gold last year and the central bank is a leading buyer via a gold trading subsidiary. Last week, prices for gold futures matched an all-time high of $2,072 a troy ounce.
The central bank has said the digital tokens will be backed by gold in its reserves and will be redeemable at international prices after 180 days. But analysts have called the scheme a distraction from the root causes of the currency crisis.
The token issue “has absolutely nothing to do with what’s happening on the ground — it is a sideshow”, said Tinashe Murapata, an economist, who added that the central bank had given few additional details on the physical gold backing for the token scheme, such as storage or auditing.
As ordinary Zimbabweans turn away from the local currency, its slide “is the thing [the bank] should be worried about”, Murapata said.
Inflation has continued to run at triple digits when measured in Zimbabwe dollars, though the central bank has adopted a “blended” rate that includes prices in both Zimbabwe and US dollars. This rate is about 87 per cent. Zimbabwe’s main interest rate is 140 per cent, having been as high as 200 per cent in January.
The central bank said gold coin sales, worth up to Z$25bn up to the end of March, had “aided the dissipation of domestic inflationary pressures”.
But because the digital gold tokens will be linked to the official currency rate, analysts have said the bank is propping up demand for the Zimbabwe dollar by effectively offering them at a discount to the parallel rate.
“There is a very clear arbitrage opportunity through participating in the forex auction or buying gold coins,” said Richard Honey of Harare-based Msasa Capital, an investment advisory firm.
Economists say the central bank is also not tackling a root cause of the currency slide: the printing of money to fund government spending, reflected in a surge in money supply this year. Harare is preparing for its second election since the 2017 coup that toppled Mugabe.
“They are printing — we are in an election period,” said Murapata. “Unfortunately, [the country’s] revenues are just not enough. We have an insatiable expenditure. It will take deep-seated institutional reforms to solve it.”
Zimbabwe has struggled with monetary chaos ever since hyperinflation under Mugabe obliterated the value of an earlier form of the Zimbabwe dollar in 2008-09. Money-printing and foreign exchange shortages before Mugabe’s downfall led to the rise of an ersatz “bond note” currency that shadowed the US dollar and which was reworked into a resurrected Zimbabwe dollar by the post-coup government in 2019.
The new currency has haemorrhaged value despite frequent attempts to impose its use. The switch to a blended inflation rate acknowledged the rise of US dollar transactions but Zimbabwean businesses said the move will damage accounting standards.
“The complexity of doing business in Zimbabwe continues to increase,” said Honey.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023