Zimbabwe Dollarized. How Does the U.S. Feel About That?

via Zimbabwe Dollarized. How Does the U.S. Feel About That? JANUARY 6, 2014 by Michael Hobbes

Here’s a section that got cut from my New Republic story about the use of the US dollar in Zimbabwe

Wait, so a country can just adopt the United States’s currency without our permission?

“The U.S. government has never taken any overt position on dollarization, formal or informal.” This is Benjamin Cohen, a political economy processor at the University of California Santa Barbara, former Fed employee and the author of some articles I’ve been reading to try to understand how one country just gets up one morning and starts using another country’s money.

Ninety percent of the world’s $100 bills, Dr. Cohen says, are in circulation outside of the United States. Dozens of countries are considered  to be “highly dollarized,” meaning more than 30 percent of their money supply is in dollars.

Unlike Zimbabwe, which has formally adopted the dollar, most countries use the U.S. dollar informally, in parallel with the local currency. A few years ago I was in Cambodia for work, and found that the local currency, the riel, was only used for small stuff like meals, transport and entertainment. Anything major—a TV, a plane ticket, an iPhone—prices were quoted and paid in U.S. dollars.

It’s not just Cambodia. These sorts of arrangements are commonplace throughout the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia. People use the local currency, but keep U.S. dollars as a hedge against inflation, like Tea Partiers hoarding gold.

According to Cohen, the United States has no reason to prevent these arrangements. Not only does the U.S. dollar provide a quarry of monetary calm for citizens of inflating nations, the U.S. actually makes money every time our money leaves our borders. “Seniorage,” as the economists call it, is the profit the U.S. earns every time a foreigner ‘buys’ a dollar for a dollar (It costs 6 cents to print a $1 bill. If you print one, then use it to buy something that costs a dollar, you’ve just earned 94 cents profit. That’s seniorage.).

This sounds like it shouldn’t be a real thing, but the US earns $500 billion per year from all those $100 bills held internationally. Not a huge proportion of GDP, but hey, free money, right?

The other upsides are obvious. Every time another country uses our currency, it reinforces the U.S. dollar as world’s preferred international currency, just like every time someone drinks a Coke or eats a Big Mac it reinforces the status of those brands.

Foreign countries using our currency even gives us diplomatic power. Panama, one of the first countries to formally adopt the U.S. dollar, froze in its tracks when the U.S. cut off access to hard currency in the late 1980s to put pressure on Noriega.

The only real downside of foreign countries dollarizing, for the U.S. at least, is that it creates a headache for the Fed. The more countries dollarize, the more the Fed has to take them into account when making monetary policy. A million calculations go into the decision to raise or lower interest rates, and the last thing the Fed needs is to add the interests of Cambodian iPod salesmen into the mix.

One of the more significant downsides is if a dollarized country suddenly reintroduced their domestic currency, it might flood the market with millions of now-unneeded U.S. dollars, reducing the value of all of them. It doesn’t even have to be a whole country. If the dollar was used widely enough, huge purchases of dollars by foreigners could significantly affect its value.

This is why, Cohen says, the U.S. takes a policy of “benign neglect” toward foreign countries that want to formally or informally dollarize. You want to buy a bunch of dollars and give them to your citizens in exchange for your old currency? Fine. You want to encourage your banks to offer accounts denominated in U.S. dollars? Have a blast. The U.S. isn’t going to be particularly helpful in helping you set this up, but they’re not going to stop you either.

Ten countries (East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama and a bunch of small island nations) are formally dollarized, meaning the U.S. dollar is their official currency (most of them have their own coins though).

Zimbabwe is formally dollarized in that all government spending is in U.S. dollars, but it also recognizes the euro, the British pound, the Botswanan pula and the South African rand (why the Mozambican metical got left out, I have no idea). Stores accept payment in whatever currency you have handy, and sometimes give you change in a different currency than you paid.

One of the things that always surprised me about Zimbabwe was how it just switched to U.S. dollars one day, without any relationship to the U.S. Federal Reserve. It was even under sanctions at the time. Can it just do that?

“It’s totally normal to switch to the U.S. dollar without any relationship to the Fed,” Cohen says. “It doesn’t require an application. Anyone can buy paper money, and anyone can get a dollar bank account. Their own country may restrict those things, but the U.S. doesn’t.”

When Ecuador officially adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000, it carried out a mass currency conversion. The central bank sold their U.S. treasury bonds to the U.S. for cash, brought the cash back to Ecuador and gave Ecuadoreans a window in which to exchange their sucres for U.S. dollars. The U.S. didn’t orchestrate, nor condemn, this process.

Like an introduced species, the U.S. dollar tends to take over an increasingly large percentage of the economy. The only country Cohen knows of that has de-dollarized is Israel, which introduced the U.S. dollar in the late 1970s as a parallel currency, and only managed to get rid of it after a series of economic reforms reinstated confidence in the shekel. Lots of informally dollarized countries, like Argentina, go through waves of increasing, then decreasing dollarization in line with citizens’ confidence in the local currency.

I have no idea what any of this means for Zimbabwe. As I say in the New Republic story, bringing back the Zimbabwe dollar is seen by economists (including the head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) as a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Dr. Cohen’s written a bunch of interesting, easy to read articles on dollarization from the US perspective

 Thanks for the interview!



  • comment-avatar
    Murimi Wanhasi 10 years ago

    Mr Obama,keep your America,and we will keep your dollar.Period

  • comment-avatar
    Angela Wigmore 10 years ago

    I wonder how many black Zimbabweans remember when the Rhodesian dollar was on a par with the British pound and worth two US dollars? When your wages, meagre as they may have seemed at the time, were paid regularly and were enough to cover your monthly expenses as well as helping your extended families? You traded heaven for hell. For what? A vote? A vote that means nothing! You were better off without it!

    • comment-avatar
      haranga 10 years ago

      not exactly true angela.blacks were employed for menial jobs. towns were almost exclusively for whites. country had separate economies for blacks and whites. governnent service was for whites with blacks as an afterthought. anything of value belonged to whites. i hav not voted for mugabe since 2000 but no colonialism was overally bad. dont use smith’s flawed arguement that he had the happiest african

  • comment-avatar
    Revenger-avenger 10 years ago

    Mugabe. Keep on begging stealing. Even Satan won’t give you asylum or your stupid zanoids either when we frogmarch you to the snakepit at our new chikurubi. Wurimi wanhasi will be a big wailing cry baby as the cobras mambas tease him like they do to rats

  • comment-avatar
    Rukweza 10 years ago

    America is the world believe it or not

  • comment-avatar
    Revenger-avenger 10 years ago

    Yeah. The gonodollars mugabedollar china-masadollar zimdollar toilet paper are well on their way back. Zanupf is thieving the paper currency to its illegal offshore havens

  • comment-avatar
    Tourist 10 years ago

    murimi(zanupf) get back to the herald please.!!!!!!!!111

  • comment-avatar
    munzwa 10 years ago

    But we will never, ever , be a colony again….sounds a bit like that 1000year speech…

  • comment-avatar
    Murimi Wanhasi 10 years ago

    Criminals go to chikurubi.Murimi is a law abiding citizen,enjoying the economic benefits of the policies of the government of today,and tmrw if I might add.
    It feels good chowing hard earned us dollars.I dont steal,I am making a contribution to my country.
    @ Tourist,comrade,last time I checked,your asylum papers had come out,pliz go and collect

    • comment-avatar
      munzwa 10 years ago

      @ murimi, dealing with stolen goods is as good as being the thief…

  • comment-avatar
    Jrr56 10 years ago

    It amuses me that in one breath they condemn the US and the West but still buy their paper and base their economy on it.

  • comment-avatar
    Murimi Wanhasi 10 years ago

    Revenger,Tourist, your boss Angela Wigmore has stepped in,so sshhhh.

  • comment-avatar
    silungisani ndlovu 10 years ago


  • comment-avatar
    Tongai Tione 10 years ago

    Mama a maelections, mobazve ne$ ravaridzi? Munonyadzisa. ko renyu raGono raipeiko?