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Demonetising a currency

Adopting another currency or introducing a new currency does not solve the economic crises, unless it is followed by massive corrections in the macroeconomic fundamentals.

 The Central Bank of Zimbabwe announced that it would officially demonetise the Zimbabwean dollar with effect from 15th June 2015. Any bank account in the country which holds between zero and 175 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars will get a flat amount of US $5. This, in effect sets the exchange rate at US$1 = Z$ 35,000,000,000,000,000

Demonetisation is the process whereby a currency of a country officially loses its status as legal tender. The Zimbabwean dollar’s usage was effectively abandoned in April 2009 itself, but was still recognised as legal tender. Legal tender or fiat money is the official status given to a currency by the central bank, whereby all citizens of that country are obliged to accept it as a means of exchange.

Demonetisation has often happened in the past. Germany has demonetised at least thrice in recent history – from Papiermark to RentenMark; from Reichsmark to Deutchemark to finally from Deutchemark to the Euro.

The process of demonetisation was seen when several European countries abandoned their national currencies to be replaced by the Euro. The other big event of demonetisation process happened with regard to gold, when the US officially closed the gold window in 1973, thereby ending the decades long gold exchange standard/Bretton Woods system.

Apart from these one-off occurrences, the process of demonetisation usually happens after a country goes through a process of hyperinflation and the currency becomes worthless. Zimbabwe’s episode of hyperinflation in 2008, where inflation rates were as high as 231 million percent, caused the Zimbabwean dollar to collapse in value. It was impossible for normal trade to occur with the national currency, as a loaf of bread cost Z$1.6 trillion at one point. As a result, currencies such as the US dollar, the South African rand and the euro were widely circulated and used in Zimbabwe.


A hundred trillion Zimbabwean dollar note


Demonetistion is usually the last step in the fight against hyperinflation. It is the official acceptance from the central bank and the government that its currency is of little or no value and acknowledgements of its failure. Thus, demonetisation is undertaken only at severely extenuating circumstances. Countries usually try to redenominate the currency first. Redenomination is the fixing of a new value for the existing currency. Operationally, it is the equivalent of knocking of a few zeroes from the value of the currency. For example, Zimbabwe tried redenomination four times since 2006. In the first redenomination Zimbabwe removed three zeroes from the value, 13 zeroes in the second redenomination and a further 12 zeroes in the third redenomination. However, bad macroeconomic fundamentals and a bad fiscal and monetary policy framework ensured Zimbabwe’s journey further into hyperinflation.

Once a currency is demonetized, the country has two options left: 1) Dollarization/Adoption of a foreign currency – This is when the country adopts the currency of another country as its own, which effectively translates into abandoning independence in monetary policy. The monetary policy of the adopted currency become applicable and binding on the country adopting it. Usually, the dollar is adopted, but not necessarily so always. 2) Introduction of a new currency – Eventually, the country might choose to introduce another of its own currency and have a preset exchange rate with the old currency/dollars. This is done to regain independence in monetary policy.

In the final analysis, adopting another currency or introducing a new currency does not solve the economic crises, unless it is followed by large scale corrections in the macroeconomic fundamentals.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at Takshashila Institution. He tweets @anupammanur

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Why is the Dollar the World’s Reserve Currency?

By Anupam Manur and Varun Ramachandra

Strength, stability, universal acceptability, and a lack of a viable alternative to the dollar makes it the global reserve currency. 

Global trade and businesses function best when there is a currency that is widely accepted. This doesn’t imply a common currency, instead, it refers to the usage of a widely acceptable currency for international transactions. Such a currency reduces the transaction costs of converting one currency to another and enables easy invoicing of traded goods and services. This common currency is referred to as the reserve currency.

The brief history of reserve currencies:

Historically, a reserve currency implied a currency that was in wide circulation even outside the issuing state’s borders. Currently, the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency but this hasn’t been the case forever. The silver Drachma issued by the ancient Athens was probably the first reserve currency. The Roman Aureus and Denarious coins, the Byzantine Solidius coins, the Arabian Dinar, the Florence Fiorino, and the Dutch Gulden have at various points had the status of being the world’s reserve currency.

History of money


In 1717, Britain adopted the gold standard – a system where central banks had to back each paper currency note they printed with an equal or proportional amount of gold — and simultaneously built a vast empire. At the height of its power, more than 60% of world trade was invoiced in pounds and this led to the pound sterling becoming the world’s reserve currency. At around the end of the 19th century, America’s economic significance rose and this resulted in the US dollar toppling the pound as the most sought-after currency. Today, more than two-thirds of foreign exchange reserves held by central banks around the world are in US dollars (see figure).



Why do central banks maintain reserves?

Two important reasons for holding reserves are as follows:

First, safety. Reserves act as savings, and central banks can benefit from this in hours of need. When a country faces a balance of payments crisis or some other form of financial crisis, the central bank can use its reserves to alleviate the situation. Typically, central banks manage enough reserves to cover for three months’ worth of imports to maintain continuity of trade in times of crises. Reserves also act as positive assurance to debtors.

Second, reserves are maintained to manage a country’s exchange rate policy (the previous post explored this aspect). Whenever a country’s currency appreciates or depreciates, and moves away from the target exchange rate set, the central bank steps in and uses its reserves to maintain exchange rate stability. The Reserve Bank of India has done this on numerous occasions when the rupee has appreciated or depreciated.

Why is the US dollar the reserve currency?

Since the United States boasts of the world’s largest economy (around $18 trillion) and has a stable political environment, most international trade is invoiced in dollars and about 50-60% of US dollars circulate outside US borders. Since there has been no default or major devaluation of the dollar in the past few decades, the USD and the US government’s treasury bonds are thought of as the safest assets in the world; this inherent stability and risk-free nature of the dollar is attractive to investors and has therefore ensured that the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

According to economist Ewe-Ghee Lim, there are five factors that facilitate international currency’s status: a large economic size, the existence of a well-developed financial system, confidence in the currency’s value, political stability, and network externalities. Additional features for currencies that assume reserve status are large-scale current account and financial account convertibility, an independent central bank, a high degree of capital mobility, surveillance of economic policies, and cooperation of monetary policymaking at regional and multilateral levels. The dollar checks almost all of these boxes.

The rise of China since the 80s has made the Chinese Yuan an important world currency, but since the Yuan has been deliberately undervalued to aid exports, the real exchange rate of Yuan is unknown. Japan and Britain are waning economic powers, the emerging markets are too volatile, the Euro has many internal problems, and gold is too static a commodity to be held as the reserve currency. This leaves the dollar as the only viable option for the time being, and probably for some more time to come.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at Takshashila Institution  and tweets @anupammanur

Varun Ramachandra is a Policy Analyst at Takshashila Institution and tweets   @_quale

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