Sunday, November 01, 2009

The bizarre obsession with Zimbabwe

As those who do not understand how the financial system works fret about hyperinflation "just around the corner", and keep trotting out the example of Zimbabwe. This obsession with Zimbabwe is bizarre.

About 50 years ago, when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, you could describe it as a middle income country, maybe comparable to Poland today. Since independence, it has gone to hell in a handbasket, with the Government mostly being non-existant, except to destroy 50% of the productive output. I do not have details, but I bet tax collection is partial at best, theft and graft is rampant, and the economy runs on a mixed currency model like most of the third world, including barter, US dollars, and Zibabwe dollars (which officially went out of existence a few months ago). The country is also dirt poor, with hardly any real capital stock or inventory. I have no idea what deficits it was running (if any at all), what the status of fx obligations were, or how much of the economy ever existed in the formal sector. Neither does anyone else.

And yet, people think it is somehow a good analogy for the US.

If one insists on arguing by poetry, there is a much better example to use: Japan. It is a modern industrial country, just like the US, with robust tax collection, and Government liabilities entirely in the floating fiat currency of the Japanese Government. It too suffered a huge credit bubble and bust, and it has now gone about 30 years with massive quantities of reserves piling up in the banking system, debt to GDP at 200%, chronic unemployment and underemployment (by Japanese standards), and zero interest rates. But theirs has been a story of deflation, not inflation.

All of the standard elements that are supposedly leading to hyperinflation "just around the corner" -- zero interest rates, massive reserves, huge debt to GDP -- have been operational in Japan for almost a generation, and yet the story has been one of grinding deflation. The reality of Japan defies all these hyperinflation predictions, which I assume is why it's been ignored.

The only example I can think of that's worse that Zimbabwe is a brick, because a brick doesn't have an economy at all, it's a building material.


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