The 2nd Zimbabwean Hyperinflation

by Serban V.C. Enache

Zimbabwe is once again facing rampant inflation, a rate of almost 100 percent recorded in the month of May.

I felt the need to investigate its macros. As usual, the graphs are based on info from tradingeconomcis. An important development is that last month, the Government removed the legal tender status of foreign currencies and made the new Zimbabwean Dollar [RTGS] the sole legal tender.

The country dropped its national currency back in 2009, and replaced it with a multi [foreign] currency system in efforts to combat hyperinflation at the time. The recent reverse measure, taken by Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration, comes in response to dire commodity shortages across the country. Mnangagwa replaced Robert Mugabe as president two years ago in a coup. However, without sufficient US dollars to pay for imports, the country’s fuel stations have frequently run out and gasoline prices more than doubled between the months of January and April.

Fuel going up, coupled with the currency’s depreciation, made the cost of food, transportation, and housing utilities to soar. Due to the lack of confidence, as expected, more and more vendors set prices in US dollars.

In a milestone deal with the IMF last month, the Government agreed to cease net money creation [deficit spending] in order to pay its bills, which was a root cause of the sudden hyperinflation. The IMF is monitoring economic reforms for a year under a mutually agreed program. Debt relief was promised at the end of this year, provided the Government respects the deal. Companies are meant to trade RTGS dollars on an official market, but there were few takers. Analysts said that the Government’s gamble to force greater adoption of the RTGS might very well backfire, pushing transactions in foreign currencies underground.

With all these developments in mind, let’s see Zimbabwe’s flow of funds, and later on we’ll look at other indicators. The country has been a net exporter of Aggregate Demand and a net importer of goods for ten years straight. The Domestic Private sector [composed of domestic firms and households] has been going severely into debt for those same ten years. Only in the last two years was it able to net save financial assets, when the Government seriously expanded fiscal deficit spending.

We also see how the country’s money supply shot up, especially in 2018 and 2019. The M2 measurement [which includes cash and checking deposits + savings deposits, money market securities, mutual funds, and other time deposits] reached an all time high of 10.55 billion US dollars last March.

The unemployment figure has remained stable throughout years, but I don’t put much faith in the accuracy of this data, simply because of how the State defines being unemployed. For example, people like subsistence farmers, who consume all of their own output, are categorized as employed. And more to the point, the graph below is based on the “strict unemployed” definition [one who has been without work, is available for work and is actively seeking work]. The broader definition doesn’t require the latter condition.

Those working in the grey [informal] economy include people who do unpaid labor for a family business or paid employees who are not entitled to sick leave or paid holidays. In Zimbabwe, there are a great many who work in these circumstances. If we count as employed those workers on a payroll with taxes deducted at source and pension coverage, then the unemployment estimate is huge.

On to trade. South Africa owns the largest share of Zimbabwe’s exports. In my opinion, the country is far too dependent on its southern neighbor for commerce, and South Africa’s socio-political stability looks bleak these days. It would be better to seek out markets in different countries, in order to minimize risk and better handle potential negative demand shocks [for Zimbabwean exports] and negative supply shocks [for Zimbabwean imports].

The graph below shows Zimbabwe’s exports by countries of destination.

The graph below shows Zimbabwe’s imports by countries of source.

According to the World Bank, Zimbabwe’s exports sector as percentage of GDP last year was 22.9 percent and its imports sector 25.5 percent.

It’s safe to say that strategic bilateral relations cannot be formed, so long as Zimbabwe’s political class doesn’t compromise on a certain vector the country needs to maintain long term. Foreign investors [state and private agents] won’t be willing to come in, if they believe their investments will be at risk at the next election cycle, or if the chances for political instability and social upheaval are high. In recent years, Russia has been paying more attention to Africa, the northern states in particular, investing mostly in oil rigs and nuclear power plant deals. That’s one potential partner state with which the Mnangagwa administration should seek to do business.

Going back to Zimbabwe’s main trade partner, South Africa… that country is experiencing serious problems in rising criminality, and Ramaphosa’s land reform [confiscation without compensation] is bound to fail. In South Africa, since 1994, 21 percent of farms were put into Black African ownership. But more than 80 percent of those farms failed to remain economically active. If you ask Black farmers the reason for that miserable success rate, they blame the Government, and that’s absolutely true. That’s how you know it was a simulation of reform and not a legit effort behind it; because a singular reform, in and of itself, can’t be successful when everything else remains the same. In order to be a commercial success, an agribusiness requires access to infrastructure, to financial and physical capital, crop insurance, skilled labor, competent management, and access to markets capable of absorbing its output at a price which covers operation costs plus the markup.

South Africa [and Zimbabwe] needs a holistic approach to its national problems, and that means a combination of measures. Changing ownership doesn’t fix anything. The goal should be to decommodify land, which can be done via nationalization or [my personal preference] through site value taxation. Complementary measures should include: community land trusts, community banking, a national infrastructure investment plan, a national health care and education service, a national trade strategy, and last but not least, asset-side reform of the financial sector.

Reducing bureaucracy should be a priority as well. Currently, Zimbabwe is ranked 155th in 190 countries in the category of ‘ease of doing business.’ The more complex the laws and regulations are, the more wasteful and corrupt the system is. The State-dirigist method and Single Tax philosophy don’t require more time spent between citizen and bureaucrat, quite the opposite!

After Mugabe’s land reform, Zimbabwe isn’t out of the woods, and its population is growing too.

Using the printing press without any regard to budgetary rules, without any clear goal in mind, will only make the situation worse. The Zimbabwean Dollar [RTGS], in order to appreciate in value, requires a combination of tighter supply and higher demand for it. The Government’s specialists need to determine the country’s potential output vis-a-vis actual output and adjust fiscal policy in consequence. A negative output gap occurs when actual output is less than what the economy can produce at full capacity – while a positive output gap is the reverse and is inflationary.

The Government should aim for a near zero fiscal deficit; should temporarily ban the importation of luxury items, at least for a few years if not several years; should prioritize the importation of vital commodities – fuel, water, pharmaceuticals, grain, milk, and the like. The Central Bank should be ordered to run permanent zero interest rate policy. Reduced interest payments into the economy means a smaller supply of Zimbabwean currency. And the Government should only accept RTGS in payment of its exports, and it should only guarantee bank deposits denominated in RTGS. This combo would be sufficient to halt inflation, bring price stability and political confidence in state institutions and fuel hope for a better tomorrow.

Syrian Tariffs Must Fall!

by Serban V.C. Enache

In November of last year, the Naseeb border crossing between Syria and Jordan was reopened, providing Lebanese exporters a land route for their output. Despite this, political quarrels between Damascus and Beirut and high tariffs rendered the border crossing unusable or unprofitable to say the least.

Syria is key for Lebanon’s access to foreign markets. The tiny country is confined between its neighbours: the conflict-weary Syria and the sealed border with a hostile Israel. Thus, border crossings into Syria and then out into other countries are required for land-bound exports. Lebanon’s exports collapsed from a peak of 78 percent of GDP in 2008 to as low as 36 percent in 2017, as the [outside-manufactured] Syrian civil war raged on. Exports by land would be cheaper and faster, a five day trip as opposed to a trip lasting 25 days. According to customs officials, before the Naseeb border crossing was closed, over 250 trucks a day headed out from Lebanon to markets in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf. When it closed, that volume dropped to about 300 trucks a month, and that was on a good month, bound only for Syria.

Sadly, the Naseeb crossing’s reopening last year brought with it high transit tariffs, imposed by Syria and Jordan on trucks heading to the Gulf – thus making Lebanese sea-bound exports more appealing via the Suez Canal, despite the longer route, for the Lebanese Government also provides subsidies to merchant ships.

Lebanon’s political leaders are divided between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad. This month, however, fruitful talks were held. The Syrian Government agreed to lower tariffs on Lebanese products entering Syria, and to reactivate [accords signed in 2010] and establish new agriculture agreements between the two countries. While the announcement comes as good news, the Syrian government has yet to disclose its new tariff rate.

The Future Movement, along with the Lebanese Forces, and the Progressive Socialist Party, strongly reject direct ties with Assad’s regime until a political solution to the conflict is reached. While Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement support direct talks with him in order to establish the return of Syrian refugees and improve the Lebanese economy.

The country’s president, Michel Aoun, visited Moscow last month to have talks with Putin on geopolitical subjects and to discuss bilateral business agreements. Since the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon [Assad withdrew remaining troops from Lebanon in 2005], Michel Aoun has been seeking to improve his country’s relationship with Syria. He has treated all Lebanese parties as potential partners, including Hezbollah.

It makes no sense for Assad to reopen the crossing and then to impose punitive tariffs on transit. Either you want to reopen trade or not. Keeping such a high tariff is not good policy, it’s not even in the category of protectionism. I wish to invoke the wisdom of Vattel’s The Law of Nations concerning the matter of trade. Every word Vattel writes conveys precious meaning, which should be put in practice.

“Every nation ought, therefore, not only to countenance trade, as far as it reasonably can, but even to protect and favour it. The care of the public roads,—the safety of travellers,—the establishment of ports, of places of sale, of well-regulated fairs,—all contribute to this end. And where these are attended with expense, the nation, as we have already observed, may, by tolls and other duties equitably proportioned, indemnify itself for its disbursements. […]

Freedom being very favourable to commerce, it is implied in the duties of nations, that they should support it as far as possible, instead of cramping it by unnecessary burdens or restrictions. Wherefore those private privileges and tolls, which obtain in many places, and press so heavily on commerce, are deservedly to be reprobated, unless founded on very important reasons arising from the public good.
Every nation, in virtue of her natural liberty, has a right to trade with those who are willing to correspond with such intentions; and to molest her in the exercise of her right is doing her an injury.

The home trade of a nation is of great use; it furnishes all the citizens with the means of procuring whatever they want, as either necessary, useful, or agreeable: it causes a circulation of money, excites industry, animates labour, and, by affording subsistence to a great number of people, contributes to increase the population and power of the state.

The same reasons shew the use of foreign trade, which is moreover attended with these two advantages:—1. By trading with foreigners, a nation procures such things as neither nature nor art can furnish in the country it occupies. And secondly, if its foreign trade be properly directed, it increases the riches of the nation, and may become the source of wealth and plenty. […]

Nations are obliged to cultivate the home trade,—first, because it is clearly demonstrated from the law of nature, that mankind ought mutually to assist each other, and, as far as in their power, contribute to the perfection and happiness of their fellow-creatures: whence arises, after the introduction of private property, the obligation to resign to others, at a fair price, those things which they have occasion for, and which we do not destine for our own use. Secondly, society being established with the view that each may procure whatever things are necessary to his own perfection and happiness,—and a home trade being the means of obtaining them,—the obligations to carry on and improve this trade are derived from the very compact on which the society was formed. Finally, being advantageous to the nation, it is a duty the people owe to themselves, to make this commerce flourish.

For the same reason, drawn from the welfare of the state, and also to procure for the citizens every thing they want, a nation is obliged to promote and carry on a foreign trade.

[…] from all which it follows, that a nation has a right to procure, at an equitable price, whatever articles it wants, by purchasing them of other nations who have no occasion for them. This is the foundation of the right of commerce between different nations, and, in particular, of the right of buying. We cannot apply the same reasoning to the right of selling such things as we want to part with. Every man and every nation being perfectly at liberty to buy a thing that is to be sold, or not to buy it, and to buy it of one rather than of another,—the law of nature gives to no person whatsoever any kind of right to sell what belongs to him to another who does not wish to buy it; neither has any nation the right of selling her commodities or merchandise to a people who are unwilling to have them.

Let us only observe, that nations, as well as individuals, are obliged to trade together for the common benefit of the human race, because mankind stand in need of each other’s assistance: still however, each nation remains at liberty to consider, in particular cases, whether it be convenient for her to encourage, or permit commerce; and as our duty to ourselves is paramount to our duty to others,—if one nation finds herself in such circumstances, that she thinks foreign commerce dangerous to the state, she may renounce and prohibit it.”

Since Assad reopened the Naseeb crossing, he doesn’t view foreign commerce as a threat. The tariff in my opinion should be slashed to zero for a simple reason: Jordan and Lebanon and Syria are on equal grounds in terms of economic development. It’s a case of comparing apples to apples, rather than oranges to apples [say, the US vs Mexico]. And the cost of maintaining roads and safety can be successfully borne by the Governments involved without such taxes or tolls being levied. Friedrich List, an exponent of the Historical School and a protectionist, did not oppose free trade among nations with comparable levels of development, more so, he supported it.

The punitive Syrian tariffs are hurting Syria and they’re hurting Lebanese farmers and businesses the most. I’ll end this article with this magnificent performance from 2003 by Julia Boutros. Two songs with English subtitles that inflame the soul with hope.

Russo-Turkish Relations

Moving Away From US Hegemony

by Serban V.C. Enache

Yesterday, the heads of state of Russia and Turkey held a joint press conference, which is available here. One of their common points was to get bilateral trade working with just the ruble and the lira. Every sovereign nation ought to conduct trade in her own currency and that of her trade partner, and not conduct trade in a 3rd party currency [like the US dollar or the euro]. The issuer of the 3rd party currency receives an unearned increase in his currency’s value. When the international situation deters [like today, due to the USA’s war mongering], national currency swaps between partner countries is better than relying on a foreign currency with which to do settlement payments – especially if the reserve currency in question belongs to a belligerent actor, who – as we have seen in the case of Venezuela – has the power of freezing those accounts.

Both Russia and Turkey are advancing well in their bilateral trade and tourism, some of the most important deals are the TurkStream gas project, Rusatom aiding Turkey with her nuclear power plants, and the S-400 sealed deal.

Vladimir Putin, asked about the trade situation with Turkey being in Russia’s favor, said that a neutral trade balance is what he wishes. You’ll never hear such a statement from a German head of state or Eurocrat Neoliberal. You will never hear the EU or the Eurozone’s top brass criticize the huge and sustained German financial surpluses against the Periphery countries. They will insist for member state governments to have balanced fiscal statements, but never balanced current accounts. Putin emphasized that the main factor of attractiveness of Russian gas exports is reliability of delivery.

The situation in Syria was raised as well, including the Kurdish question. As the situation stands, the best option – which preserves human life and avoids further conflict – for the Kurds is to accept Syrian unity and relinquish any territorial claims. If we’re to invoke things like patriotism and nationalism, these ideals are incompatible with strife and death. No true patriot or nationalist can accept the blood of civilians, his own or that of the enemy, and pretend he or she is on the side of justice. The only way for sustainable peace, order, and development is through the implementation and observance of Westphalian principles: forgiving and forgetting past transgressions in perpetuity. The realist and moral position for the Kurdish region is to remain part of Syria, with full equality under the law.

The Kemalists are a concern, however, since their aim is to have stronger relations with NATO and get full EU membership. Erdogan saw how Washington treats its allies when they become independent, they tried a coup against him. Washington maintained radio silence during the coup operation, and only came out in public to condemn the coup attempt after it had failed. If you want further proof, Erdogan demanded Gulen from the Americans, so he could be tried in Turkey for his involvement in the coup. Gulen is NOT an American citizen, yet the Americans declined. It’s very clear that Washington tried to oust Erdogan, and Erdogan, since then, has taken measures to diversify geopolitical and economic relations. Erdogan should aim to strike a balance between the laic and religious sections of the population within Turkey, otherwise he risks a civil war of his own. I wrote about Turkey’s financial plight in August last year, and so far, despite the underwhelming results for Erdogan’s party [the AKP] at the recent local elections, he is pursuing a truly sovereign foreign policy and I give credit where credit is due. Turkey is no longer in the Yankee deck.

The only chance for peace in that part of the world is for Eurasia to rise, not just as an ideal, but as a Westphalian reality [a sisterhood of sovereign nation states]. I call it Southwest Asia, not the Middle East, because the latter, since the Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, has been used as a British imperial term to describe a hot, resource dense, looting ground, and recurrent geopolitical hand grenade in Great Power conflicts [divide & rule].

China’s Africa

by Serban V.C. Enache

The violence and propaganda of the 20th century left us with a certain way of looking at things. That world affairs orbit around superpowers in their quest for dominance over various parts of the globe. Spheres of influence are carved out by tanks and guns, economic sanctions, coups – but also through diplomacy, material and financial aid, and cultural exports. Continue reading “China’s Africa”