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Zimbabwe fears new financial crisis

31 January 2014, 07:23

Harare - After years of relative calm, beleaguered Zimbabweans are bracing for a renewed economic and financial crisis that could see their country become a silent victim of the emerging markets selloff.

Despite President Robert Mugabe's lofty pre-election promises, six months into his new tenure, alarm bells are ringing in every corner of this $11bn economy.

Dollarisation means inflation is under control - to the relief of all who suffered years of hyperinflation - but joblessness remains endemic and the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank has warned that economic growth is slowing.

Businesses operate with patchy energy, transport and communications infrastructure, but they are lucky to operate at all.

A "severe and persistent liquidity crunch" - in the words of the central bank - means many cannot access credit needed to start up, expand or keep going.

Companies are laying off around 300 people every week, according to the main trade union federation.

"We need money to keep the business going but it is expensive to borrow from the banks. The interest rates are just outrageous," said Ashwin Sirewu, who runs a family transport business.

"We are going to spend another year concentrating on trying to avoid sinking instead of thinking about expanding our business."

Economists estimate the country is only running at a third of its current capacity.

International sanctions

Countrywide these troubles translates into a current account deficit expected to hit 22% of GDP this year, meaning more than a fifth of all wealth produced this year with leave the country.

Most of that deficit is caused by Zimbabwe's reliance on imports from neighbouring South Africa and Botswana for even the most basic goods such as bath soap.

The government has long blamed such trade woes on international sanctions, but what sanctions remain today mainly target members of Mugabe's inner circle.

Investors report being rather more concerned by indigenisation laws, which require that black Zimbabweans own controlling stakes in companies.

Business groups are calling for reform.

"There is no fresh capital coming into the country," Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce president Davison Norupiri told AFP.

"The government should start working on investment policies because we are lacking investor confidence to attract long-term investment."

"We need significant investment and more exports to address the liquidity challenges."

Trouble and strife

Zimbabwe's need for foreign capital could barely come at a worse time, as investors pull cash away from emerging markets.

While flows out of South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine and Argentina have garnered the most attention, Zimbabwe risks becoming a silent victim.

"We are already in a crisis and heading towards what might be a deepening crisis," said Harare-based independent economist John Robertson.

"We are going to find this leading to an embarrassing situation where it's going to be difficult for government and companies to pay wages and salaries."

The banking sector is likely to be at the epicentre of any shock.

Already long queues are becoming a regular feature at branches of those banks known to be struggling, despite government protestations.

An estimated $2bn circulates outside the banking system.

"The banking sector is not sick. We have 21 banks and of those, three had challenges of liquidity," finance minister Patrick Chinamasa recently said, reassuring few.

Zimbabwe's central bank had asked banks to have at least $100m in deposits by June this year, but has pushed back that deadline until 31 December 2020.

The central bank itself is struggling to recapitalise a lender of last resort facility of between $150 - $200m, but has vowed to do so by March this year.

There are doubts about where a larger safety net would come from.

Access to IMF funds has been stymied by failure to pay past debts and policies at odds with the fund's usual terms.

With a $6.1bn external debt, the bond market is not a viable option.

Hopes to boost national coffers with revenue from the diamond mines in the country's eastern Marange district appear to be fading as little cash makes its way to the government.

Diamond miners claim the mineral deposits are running out.

For Zimbabwe, time may be running out to avoid another crisis.



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