The Tower of Basel – Do We Want the Bank For International Settlements Issuing Our Global Currency?

In an April 7 article in The London Telegraph titled “The G20 Moves the World a Step Closer to a Global Currency,” Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote:

“A single clause in Point 19 of the communiqué issued by the G20 leaders amounts to revolution in the global financial order.

“‘We have agreed to support a general SDR allocation which will inject $250bn (£170bn) into the world economy and increase global liquidity,’ it said. SDRs are Special Drawing Rights, a synthetic paper currency issued by the International Monetary Fund that has lain dormant for half a century.

“In effect, the G20 leaders have activated the IMF’s power to create money and begin global ‘quantitative easing’. In doing so, they are putting a de facto world currency into play. It is outside the control of any sovereign body. Conspiracy theorists will love it.”

Indeed they will. The article is subtitled, “The world is a step closer to a global currency, backed by a global central bank, running monetary policy for all humanity.” Which naturally raises the question, who or what will serve as this global central bank, cloaked with the power to issue the global currency and police monetary policy for all humanity? When the world’s central bankers met in Washington last September, they discussed what body might be in a position to serve in that awesome and fearful role. A former governor of the Bank of England stated:

“[T]he answer might already be staring us in the face, in the form of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). . . . The IMF tends to couch its warnings about economic problems in very diplomatic language, but the BIS is more independent and much better placed to deal with this if it is given the power to do so.”1

And if the vision of a global currency outside government control does not set off conspiracy theorists, putting the BIS in charge of it surely will. The BIS has been scandal-ridden ever since it was branded with pro-Nazi leanings in the 1930s. Founded in Basel, Switzerland, in 1930, the BIS has been called “the most exclusive, secretive, and powerful supranational club in the world.” Charles Higham wrote in his book Trading with the Enemy that by the late 1930s, the BIS had assumed an openly pro-Nazi bias, a theme that was expanded on in a BBC Timewatch film titled “Banking with Hitler” broadcast in 1998.2 In 1944, the American government backed a resolution at the Bretton-Woods Conference calling for the liquidation of the BIS, following Czech accusations that it was laundering gold stolen by the Nazis from occupied Europe; but the central bankers succeeded in quietly snuffing out the American resolution.3

In Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (1966), Dr. Carroll Quigley revealed the key role played in global finance by the BIS behind the scenes. Dr. Quigley was Professor of History at Georgetown University, where he was President Bill Clinton’s mentor. He was also an insider, groomed by the powerful clique he called “the international bankers.” His credibility is heightened by the fact that he actually espoused their goals. He wrote:

“I know of the operations of this network because I have studied it for twenty years and was permitted for two years, in the early 1960’s, to examine its papers and secret records. I have no aversion to it or to most of its aims and have, for much of my life, been close to it and to many of its instruments. . . . [I]n general my chief difference of opinion is that it wishes to remain unknown, and I believe its role in history is significant enough to be known.”

Quigley wrote of this international banking network:

“[T]he powers of financial capitalism had another far-reaching aim, nothing less than to create a world system of financial control in private hands able to dominate the political system of each country and the economy of the world as a whole. This system was to be controlled in a feudalist fashion by the central banks of the world acting in concert, by secret agreements arrived at in frequent private meetings and conferences. The apex of the system was to be the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, a private bank owned and controlled by the world’s central banks which were themselves private corporations.”

The key to their success, said Quigley, was that the international bankers would control and manipulate the money system of a nation while letting it appear to be controlled by the government. The statement echoed one made in the eighteenth century by the patriarch of what would become the most powerful banking dynasty in the world. Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild famously said in 1791:

“Allow me to issue and control a nation’s currency, and I care not who makes its laws.”

Mayer’s five sons were sent to the major capitals of Europe – London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Naples – with the mission of establishing a banking system that would be outside government control. The economic and political systems of nations would be controlled not by citizens but by bankers, for the benefit of bankers. Eventually, a privately-owned “central bank” was established in nearly every country; and this central banking system has now gained control over the economies of the world. Central banks have the authority to print money in their respective countries, and it is from these banks that governments must borrow money to pay their debts and fund their operations. The result is a global economy in which not only industry but government itself runs on “credit” (or debt) created by a banking monopoly headed by a network of private central banks; and at the top of this network is the BIS, the “central bank of central banks” in Basel.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

For many years the BIS kept a very low profile, operating behind the scenes in an abandoned hotel. It was here that decisions were reached to devalue or defend currencies, fix the price of gold, regulate offshore banking, and raise or lower short-term interest rates. In 1977, however, the BIS gave up its anonymity in exchange for more efficient headquarters. The new building has been described as “an eighteen story-high circular skyscraper that rises above the medieval city like some misplaced nuclear reactor.” It quickly became known as the “Tower of Basel.” Today the BIS has governmental immunity, pays no taxes, and has its own private police force.4 It is, as Mayer Rothschild envisioned, above the law.

The BIS is now composed of 55 member nations, but the club that meets regularly in Basel is a much smaller group; and even within it, there is a hierarchy. In a 1983 article in Harper’s Magazine called “Ruling the World of Money,” Edward Jay Epstein wrote that where the real business gets done is in “a sort of inner club made up of the half dozen or so powerful central bankers who find themselves more or less in the same monetary boat” – those from Germany, the United States, Switzerland, Italy, Japan and England. Epstein said:

“The prime value, which also seems to demarcate the inner club from the rest of the BIS members, is the firm belief that central banks should act independently of their home governments. . . . A second and closely related belief of the inner club is that politicians should not be trusted to decide the fate of the international monetary system.”

In 1974, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision was created by the central bank Governors of the Group of Ten nations (now expanded to twenty). The BIS provides the twelve-member Secretariat for the Committee. The Committee, in turn, sets the rules for banking globally, including capital requirements and reserve controls. In a 2003 article titled “The Bank for International Settlements Calls for Global Currency,” Joan Veon wrote:

“The BIS is where all of the world’s central banks meet to analyze the global economy and determine what course of action they will take next to put more money in their pockets, since they control the amount of money in circulation and how much interest they are going to charge governments and banks for borrowing from them. . . .

“When you understand that the BIS pulls the strings of the world’s monetary system, you then understand that they have the ability to create a financial boom or bust in a country. If that country is not doing what the money lenders want, then all they have to do is sell its currency.”5

THE CONTROVERSIAL BASEL ACCORDS

The power of the BIS to make or break economies was demonstrated in 1988, when it issued a Basel Accord raising bank capital requirements from 6% to 8%. By then, Japan had emerged as the world’s largest creditor; but Japan’s banks were less well capitalized than other major international banks. Raising the capital requirement forced them to cut back on lending, creating a recession in Japan like that suffered in the U.S. today. Property prices fell and loans went into default as the security for them shriveled up. A downward spiral followed, ending with the total bankruptcy of the banks. The banks had to be nationalized, although that word was not used in order to avoid criticism.6

Among other collateral damage produced by the Basel Accords was a spate of suicides among Indian farmers unable to get loans. The BIS capital adequacy standards required loans to private borrowers to be “risk-weighted,” with the degree of risk determined by private rating agencies; and farmers and small business owners could not afford the agencies’ fees. Banks therefore assigned 100 percent risk to the loans, and then resisted extending credit to these “high-risk” borrowers because more capital was required to cover the loans. When the conscience of the nation was aroused by the Indian suicides, the government, lamenting the neglect of farmers by commercial banks, established a policy of ending the “financial exclusion” of the weak; but this step had little real effect on lending practices, due largely to the strictures imposed by the BIS from abroad.7

Similar complaints have come from Korea. An article in the December 12, 2008 Korea Times titled “BIS Calls Trigger Vicious Cycle” described how Korean entrepreneurs with good collateral cannot get operational loans from Korean banks, at a time when the economic downturn requires increased investment and easier credit:

“‘The Bank of Korea has provided more than 35 trillion won to banks since September when the global financial crisis went full throttle,’ said a Seoul analyst, who declined to be named. ‘But the effect is not seen at all with the banks keeping the liquidity in their safes. They simply don’t lend and one of the biggest reasons is to keep the BIS ratio high enough to survive,’ he said. . . .

“Chang Ha-joon, an economics professor at Cambridge University, concurs with the analyst. ‘What banks do for their own interests, or to improve the BIS ratio, is against the interests of the whole society. This is a bad idea,’ Chang said in a recent telephone interview with Korea Times.”

In a May 2002 article in The Asia Times titled “Global Economy: The BIS vs. National Banks,” economist Henry C K Liu observed that the Basel Accords have forced national banking systems “to march to the same tune, designed to serve the needs of highly sophisticated global financial markets, regardless of the developmental needs of their national economies.” He wrote:

“[N]ational banking systems are suddenly thrown into the rigid arms of the Basel Capital Accord sponsored by the Bank of International Settlement (BIS), or to face the penalty of usurious risk premium in securing international interbank loans. . . . National policies suddenly are subjected to profit incentives of private financial institutions, all members of a hierarchical system controlled and directed from the money center banks in New York. The result is to force national banking systems to privatize . . . .

“BIS regulations serve only the single purpose of strengthening the international private banking system, even at the peril of national economies. . . . The IMF and the international banks regulated by the BIS are a team: the international banks lend recklessly to borrowers in emerging economies to create a foreign currency debt crisis, the IMF arrives as a carrier of monetary virus in the name of sound monetary policy, then the international banks come as vulture investors in the name of financial rescue to acquire national banks deemed capital inadequate and insolvent by the BIS.”

Ironically, noted Liu, developing countries with their own natural resources did not actually need the foreign investment that trapped them in debt to outsiders:

“Applying the State Theory of Money [which assumes that a sovereign nation has the power to issue its own money], any government can fund with its own currency all its domestic developmental needs to maintain full employment without inflation.”

When governments fall into the trap of accepting loans in foreign currencies, however, they become “debtor nations” subject to IMF and BIS regulation. They are forced to divert their production to exports, just to earn the foreign currency necessary to pay the interest on their loans. National banks deemed “capital inadequate” have to deal with strictures comparable to the “conditionalities” imposed by the IMF on debtor nations: “escalating capital requirement, loan writeoffs and liquidation, and restructuring through selloffs, layoffs, downsizing, cost-cutting and freeze on capital spending.” Liu wrote:

“Reversing the logic that a sound banking system should lead to full employment and developmental growth, BIS regulations demand high unemployment and developmental degradation in national economies as the fair price for a sound global private banking system.”

THE LAST DOMINO TO FALL?

While banks in developing nations were being penalized for falling short of the BIS capital requirements, large international banks managed to escape the rules, although they actually carried enormous risk because of their derivative exposure. The mega-banks succeeded in avoiding the Basel rules by separating the “risk” of default out from the loans and selling it off to investors, using a form of derivative known as “credit default swaps.”

However, it was not in the game plan that U.S. banks should escape the BIS net. When they managed to sidestep the first Basel Accord, a second set of rules was imposed known as Basel II. The new rules were established in 2004, but they were not levied on U.S. banks until November 2007, the month after the Dow passed 14,000 to reach its all-time high. It has been all downhill from there. Basel II had the same effect on U.S. banks that Basel I had on Japanese banks: they have been struggling ever since to survive.8

Basel II requires banks to adjust the value of their marketable securities to the “market price” of the security, a rule called “mark to market.”9 The rule has theoretical merit, but the problem is timing: it was imposed ex post facto, after the banks already had the hard-to-market assets on their books. Lenders that had been considered sufficiently well capitalized to make new loans suddenly found they were insolvent. At least, they would have been insolvent if they had tried to sell their assets, an assumption required by the new rule. Financial analyst John Berlau complained:

“The crisis is often called a ‘market failure,’ and the term ‘mark-to-market’ seems to reinforce that. But the mark-to-market rules are profoundly anti-market and hinder the free-market function of price discovery. . . . In this case, the accounting rules fail to allow the market players to hold on to an asset if they don’t like what the market is currently fetching, an important market action that affects price discovery in areas from agriculture to antiques.”10

Imposing the mark-to-market rule on U.S. banks caused an instant credit freeze, which proceeded to take down the economies not only of the U.S. but of countries worldwide. In early April 2009, the mark-to-market rule was finally softened by the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB); but critics said the modification did not go far enough, and it was done in response to pressure from politicians and bankers, not out of any fundamental change of heart or policies by the BIS.

And that is where the conspiracy theorists come in. Why did the BIS not retract or at least modify Basel II after seeing the devastation it had caused? Why did it sit idly by as the global economy came crashing down? Was the goal to create so much economic havoc that the world would rush with relief into the waiting arms of the BIS with its privately-created global currency? The plot thickens . . . .

Originally posted on Global Research on April 18, 2009.

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1. Andrew Marshall, “The Financial New World Order: Towards a Global Currency and World Government,” Global Research (April 6, 2009).

2. Alfred Mendez, “The Network,” in “The World Central Bank: The Bank for International Settlements.”

3. “BIS – Bank of International Settlement: The Mother of All Central Banks,” Hubpages (2009).

4. Ibid.

5. Joan Veon, “The Bank for International Settlements Calls for Global Currency,” News with Views (August 26, 2003).

6. Peter Myers, “The 1988 Basle Accord – Destroyer of Japan’s Finance System” (updated September 9, 2008).

7. Nirmal Chandra, “Is Inclusive Growth Feasible in Neoliberal India?”, Network Ideas (September 2008).

8. Bruce Wiseman, “The Financial Crisis: A look Behind the Wizard’s Curtain,” Canada Free Press (March 19, 2009).

9. See Ellen Brown, “Credit Where Credit Is Due,” webofdebt.com/articles/creditcrunch.php (January 11, 2009).

10. John Berlau, “The International Mark-to-market Contagion,” Open Market (October 10, 2008).

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Overview of Zimbabwean Banking Sector (Part One)

Entrepreneurs build their business within the context of an environment which they sometimes may not be able to control. The robustness of an entrepreneurial venture is tried and tested by the vicissitudes of the environment. Within the environment are forces that may serve as great opportunities or menacing threats to the survival of the entrepreneurial venture. Entrepreneurs need to understand the environment within which they operate so as to exploit emerging opportunities and mitigate against potential threats.

This article serves to create an understanding of the forces at play and their effect on banking entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe. A brief historical overview of banking in Zimbabwe is carried out. The impact of the regulatory and economic environment on the sector is assessed. An analysis of the structure of the banking sector facilitates an appreciation of the underlying forces in the industry.
Historical Background

At independence (1980) Zimbabwe had a sophisticated banking and financial market, with commercial banks mostly foreign owned. The country had a central bank inherited from the Central Bank of Rhodesia and Nyasaland at the winding up of the Federation.

For the first few years of independence, the government of Zimbabwe did not interfere with the banking industry. There was neither nationalisation of foreign banks nor restrictive legislative interference on which sectors to fund or the interest rates to charge, despite the socialistic national ideology. However, the government purchased some shareholding in two banks. It acquired Nedbank’s 62% of Rhobank at a fair price when the bank withdrew from the country. The decision may have been motivated by the desire to stabilise the banking system. The bank was re-branded as Zimbank. The state did not interfere much in the operations of the bank. The State in 1981 also partnered with Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) as a 49% shareholder in a new commercial bank, Bank of Credit and Commerce Zimbabwe (BCCZ). This was taken over and converted to Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe (CBZ) when BCCI collapsed in 1991 over allegations of unethical business practices.

This should not be viewed as nationalisation but in line with state policy to prevent company closures. The shareholdings in both Zimbank and CBZ were later diluted to below 25% each.
In the first decade, no indigenous bank was licensed and there is no evidence that the government had any financial reform plan. Harvey (n.d., page 6) cites the following as evidence of lack of a coherent financial reform plan in those years:

– In 1981 the government stated that it would encourage rural banking services, but the plan was not implemented.
– In 1982 and 1983 a Money and Finance Commission was proposed but never constituted.
– By 1986 there was no mention of any financial reform agenda in the Five Year National Development Plan.

Harvey argues that the reticence of government to intervene in the financial sector could be explained by the fact that it did not want to jeopardise the interests of the white population, of which banking was an integral part. The country was vulnerable to this sector of the population as it controlled agriculture and manufacturing, which were the mainstay of the economy. The State adopted a conservative approach to indigenisation as it had learnt a lesson from other African countries, whose economies nearly collapsed due to forceful eviction of the white community without first developing a mechanism of skills transfer and capacity building into the black community. The economic cost of inappropriate intervention was deemed to be too high. Another plausible reason for the non- intervention policy was that the State, at independence, inherited a highly controlled economic policy, with tight exchange control mechanisms, from its predecessor. Since control of foreign currency affected control of credit, the government by default, had a strong control of the sector for both economic and political purposes; hence it did not need to interfere.

Financial Reforms

However, after 1987 the government, at the behest of multilateral lenders, embarked on an Economic and Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP). As part of this programme the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) started advocating financial reforms through liberalisation and deregulation. It contended that the oligopoly in banking and lack of competition, deprived the sector of choice and quality in service, innovation and efficiency. Consequently, as early as 1994 the RBZ Annual Report indicates the desire for greater competition and efficiency in the banking sector, leading to banking reforms and new legislation that would:

– allow for the conduct of prudential supervision of banks along international best practice
– allow for both off-and on-site bank inspections to increase RBZ’s Banking Supervision function and
– enhance competition, innovation and improve service to the public from banks.

Subsequently the Registrar of Banks in the Ministry of Finance, in liaison with the RBZ, started issuing licences to new players as the financial sector opened up. From the mid-1990s up to December 2003, there was a flurry of entrepreneurial activity in the financial sector as indigenous owned banks were set up. The graph below depicts the trend in the numbers of financial institutions by category, operating since 1994. The trend shows an initial increase in merchant banks and discount houses, followed by decline. The increase in commercial banks was initially slow, gathering momentum around 1999. The decline in merchant banks and discount houses was due to their conversion, mostly into commercial banks.

Source: RBZ Reports

Different entrepreneurs used varied methods to penetrate the financial services sector. Some started advisory services and then upgraded into merchant banks, while others started stockbroking firms, which were elevated into discount houses.

From the beginning of the liberalisation of the financial services up to about 1997 there was a notable absence of locally owned commercial banks. Some of the reasons for this were:

– Conservative licensing policy by the Registrar of Financial Institutions since it was risky to licence indigenous owned commercial banks without an enabling legislature and banking supervision experience.
– Banking entrepreneurs opted for non-banking financial institutions as these were less costly in terms of both initial capital requirements and working capital. For example a merchant bank would require less staff, would not need banking halls, and would have no need to deal in costly small retail deposits, which would reduce overheads and reduce the time to register profits. There was thus a rapid increase in non-banking financial institutions at this time, e.g. by 1995 five of the ten merchant banks had commenced within the previous two years. This became an entry route of choice into commercial banking for some, e.g. Kingdom Bank, NMB Bank and Trust Bank.

It was expected that some foreign banks would also enter the market after the financial reforms but this did not occur, probably due to the restriction of having a minimum 30% local shareholding. The stringent foreign currency controls could also have played a part, as well as the cautious approach adopted by the licensing authorities. Existing foreign banks were not required to shed part of their shareholding although Barclay’s Bank did, through listing on the local stock exchange.

Harvey argues that financial liberalisation assumes that removing direction on lending presupposes that banks would automatically be able to lend on commercial grounds. But he contends that banks may not have this capacity as they are affected by the borrowers’ inability to service loans due to foreign exchange or price control restrictions. Similarly, having positive real interest rates would normally increase bank deposits and increase financial intermediation but this logic falsely assumes that banks will always lend more efficiently. He further argues that licensing new banks does not imply increased competition as it assumes that the new banks will be able to attract competent management and that legislation and bank supervision will be adequate to prevent fraud and thus prevent bank collapse and the resultant financial crisis. Sadly his concerns do not seem to have been addressed within the Zimbabwean financial sector reform, to the detriment of the national economy.

The Operating Environment

Any entrepreneurial activity is constrained or aided by its operating environment. This section analyses the prevailing environment in Zimbabwe that could have an effect on the banking sector.

Politico-legislative

The political environment in the 1990s was stable but turned volatile after 1998, mainly due to the following factors:

– an unbudgeted pay out to war veterans after they mounted an assault on the State in November 1997. This exerted a heavy strain on the economy, resulting in a run on the dollar. Resultantly the Zimbabwean dollar depreciated by 75% as the market foresaw the consequences of the government’s decision. That day has been recognised as the beginning of severe decline of the country’s economy and has been dubbed “Black Friday”. This depreciation became a catalyst for further inflation. It was followed a month later by violent food riots.
– a poorly planned Agrarian Land Reform launched in 1998, where white commercial farmers were ostensibly evicted and replaced by blacks without due regard to land rights or compensation systems. This resulted in a significant reduction in the productivity of the country, which is mostly dependent on agriculture. The way the land redistribution was handled angered the international community, that alleges it is racially and politically motivated. International donors withdrew support for the programme.
– an ill- advised military incursion, named Operation Sovereign Legitimacy, to defend the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998, saw the country incur massive costs with no apparent benefit to itself and
– elections which the international community alleged were rigged in 2000,2003 and 2008.

These factors led to international isolation, significantly reducing foreign currency and foreign direct investment flow into the country. Investor confidence was severely eroded. Agriculture and tourism, which traditionally, are huge foreign currency earners crumbled.

For the first post independence decade the Banking Act (1965) was the main legislative framework. Since this was enacted when most commercial banks where foreign owned, there were no directions on prudential lending, insider loans, proportion of shareholder funds that could be lent to one borrower, definition of risk assets, and no provision for bank inspection.

The Banking Act (24:01), which came into effect in September 1999, was the culmination of the RBZ’s desire to liberalise and deregulate the financial services. This Act regulates commercial banks, merchant banks, and discount houses. Entry barriers were removed leading to increased competition. The deregulation also allowed banks some latitude to operate in non-core services. It appears that this latitude was not well delimited and hence presented opportunities for risk taking entrepreneurs. The RBZ advocated this deregulation as a way to de-segment the financial sector as well as improve efficiencies. (RBZ, 2000:4.) These two factors presented opportunities to enterprising indigenous bankers to establish their own businesses in the industry. The Act was further revised and reissued as Chapter 24:20 in August 2000. The increased competition resulted in the introduction of new products and services e.g. e-banking and in-store banking. This entrepreneurial activity resulted in the “deepening and sophistication of the financial sector” (RBZ, 2000:5).

As part of the financial reforms drive, the Reserve Bank Act (22:15) was enacted in September 1999.

Its main purpose was to strengthen the supervisory role of the Bank through:
– setting prudential standards within which banks operate
– conducting both on and off-site surveillance of banks
– enforcing sanctions and where necessary placement under curatorship and
– investigating banking institutions wherever necessary.

This Act still had deficiencies as Dr Tsumba, the then RBZ governor, argued that there was need for the RBZ to be responsible for both licensing and supervision as “the ultimate sanction available to a banking supervisor is the knowledge by the banking sector that the license issued will be cancelled for flagrant violation of operating rules”. However the government seemed to have resisted this until January 2004. It can be argued that this deficiency could have given some bankers the impression that nothing would happen to their licences. Dr Tsumba, in observing the role of the RBZ in holding bank management, directors and shareholders responsible for banks viability, stated that it was neither the role nor intention of the RBZ to “micromanage banks and direct their day to day operations. “

It appears though as if the view of his successor differed significantly from this orthodox view, hence the evidence of micromanaging that has been observed in the sector since December 2003.
In November 2001 the Troubled and Insolvent Banks Policy, which had been drafted over the previous few years, became operational. One of its intended goals was that, “the policy enhances regulatory transparency, accountability and ensures that regulatory responses will be applied in a fair and consistent manner” The prevailing view on the market is that this policy when it was implemented post 2003 is definitely deficient as measured against these ideals. It is contestable how transparent the inclusion and exclusion of vulnerable banks into ZABG was.

A new governor of the RBZ was appointed in December 2003 when the economy was on a free-fall. He made significant changes to the monetary policy, which caused tremors in the banking sector. The RBZ was finally authorised to act as both the licensing and regulatory authority for financial institutions in January 2004. The regulatory environment was reviewed and significant amendments were made to the laws governing the financial sector.

The Troubled Financial Institutions Resolution Act, (2004) was enacted. As a result of the new regulatory environment, a number of financial institutions were distressed. The RBZ placed seven institutions under curatorship while one was closed and another was placed under liquidation.

In January 2005 three of the distressed banks were amalgamated on the authority of the Troubled Financial Institutions Act to form a new institution, Zimbabwe Allied Banking Group (ZABG). These banks allegedly failed to repay funds advanced to them by the RBZ. The affected institutions were Trust Bank, Royal Bank and Barbican Bank. The shareholders appealed and won the appeal against the seizure of their assets with the Supreme Court ruling that ZABG was trading in illegally acquired assets. These bankers appealed to the Minister of Finance and lost their appeal. Subsequently in late 2006 they appealed to the Courts as provided by the law. Finally as at April 2010 the RBZ finally agreed to return the “stolen assets”.

Another measure taken by the new governor was to force management changes in the financial sector, which resulted in most entrepreneurial bank founders being forced out of their own companies under varying pretexts. Some eventually fled the country under threat of arrest. Boards of Directors of banks were restructured.

Economic Environment

Economically, the country was stable up to the mid 1990s, but a downturn started around 1997-1998, mostly due to political decisions taken at that time, as already discussed. Economic policy was driven by political considerations. Consequently, there was a withdrawal of multi- national donors and the country was isolated. At the same time, a drought hit the country in the season 2001-2002, exacerbating the injurious effect of farm evictions on crop production. This reduced production had an adverse impact on banks that funded agriculture. The interruptions in commercial farming and the concomitant reduction in food production resulted in a precarious food security position. In the last twelve years the country has been forced to import maize, further straining the tenuous foreign currency resources of the country.

Another impact of the agrarian reform programme was that most farmers who had borrowed money from banks could not service the loans yet the government, which took over their businesses, refused to assume responsibility for the loans. By concurrently failing to recompense the farmers promptly and fairly, it became impractical for the farmers to service the loans. Banks were thus exposed to these bad loans.

The net result was spiralling inflation, company closures resulting in high unemployment, foreign currency shortages as international sources of funds dried up, and food shortages. The foreign currency shortages led to fuel shortages, which in turn reduced industrial production. Consequently, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been on the decline since 1997. This negative economic environment meant reduced banking activity as industrial activity declined and banking services were driven onto the parallel rather than the formal market.

As depicted in the graph below, inflation spiralled and reached a peak of 630% in January 2003. After a brief reprieve the upward trend continued rising to 1729% by February 2007. Thereafter the country entered a period of hyperinflation unheard of in a peace time period. Inflation stresses banks. Some argue that the rate of inflation rose because the devaluation of the currency had not been accompanied by a reduction in the budget deficit. Hyperinflation causes interest rates to soar while the value of collateral security falls, resulting in asset-liability mismatches. It also increases non-performing loans as more people fail to service their loans.

Effectively, by 2001 most banks had adopted a conservative lending strategy e.g. with total advances for the banking sector being only 21.7% of total industry assets compared to 31.1% in the previous year. Banks resorted to volatile non- interest income. Some began to trade in the parallel foreign currency market, at times colluding with the RBZ.

In the last half of 2003 there was a severe cash shortage. People stopped using banks as intermediaries as they were not sure they would be able to access their cash whenever they needed it. This reduced the deposit base for banks. Due to the short term maturity profile of the deposit base, banks are normally not able to invest significant portions of their funds in longer term assets and thus were highly liquid up to mid-2003. However in 2003, because of the demand by clients to have returns matching inflation, most indigenous banks resorted to speculative investments, which yielded higher returns.

These speculative activities, mostly on non-core banking activities, drove an exponential growth within the financial sector. For example one bank had its asset base grow from Z$200 billion (USD50 million) to Z$800 billion (USD200 million) within one year.

However bankers have argued that what the governor calls speculative non-core business is considered best practice in most advanced banking systems worldwide. They argue that it is not unusual for banks to take equity positions in non-banking institutions they have loaned money to safeguard their investments. Examples were given of banks like Nedbank (RSA) and J P Morgan (USA) which control vast real estate investments in their portfolios. Bankers argue convincingly that these investments are sometimes used to hedge against inflation.

The instruction by the new governor of the RBZ for banks to unwind their positions overnight, and the immediate withdrawal of an overnight accommodation support for banks by the RBZ, stimulated a crisis which led to significant asset-liability mismatches and a liquidity crunch for most banks. The prices of properties and the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange collapsed simultaneously, due to the massive selling by banks that were trying to cover their positions. The loss of value on the equities market meant loss of value of the collateral, which most banks held in lieu of the loans they had advanced.

During this period Zimbabwe remained in a debt crunch as most of its foreign debts were either un-serviced or under-serviced. The consequent worsening of the balance of payments (BOP) put pressure on the foreign exchange reserves and the overvalued currency. Total government domestic debt rose from Z$7.2 billion (1990) to Z$2.8 trillion (2004). This growth in domestic debt emanates from high budgetary deficits and decline in international funding.

Socio-cultural

Due to the volatile economy after the 1990s, the population became fairly mobile with a significant number of professionals emigrating for economic reasons. The Internet and Satellite television made the world truly a global village. Customers demanded the same level of service excellence they were exposed to globally. This made service quality a differential advantage. There was also a demand for banks to invest heavily in technological systems.

The increasing cost of doing business in a hyperinflationary environment led to high unemployment and a concomitant collapse of real income. As the Zimbabwe Independent (2005:B14) so keenly observed, a direct outcome of hyperinflationary environment is, “that currency substitution is rife, implying that the Zimbabwe dollar is relinquishing its function as a store of value, unit of account and medium of exchange” to more stable foreign currencies.

During this period an affluent indigenous segment of society emerged, which was cash rich but avoided patronising banks. The emerging parallel market for foreign currency and for cash during the cash crisis reinforced this. Effectively, this reduced the customer base for banks while more banks were coming onto the market. There was thus aggressive competition within a dwindling market.

Socio-economic costs associated with hyperinflation include: erosion of purchasing power parity, increased uncertainty in business planning and budgeting, reduced disposable income, speculative activities that divert resources from productive activities, pressure on the domestic exchange rate due to increased import demand and poor returns on savings. During this period, to augment income there was increased cross border trading as well as commodity broking by people who imported from China, Malaysia and Dubai. This effectively meant that imported substitutes for local products intensified competition, adversely affecting local industries.

As more banks entered the market, which had suffered a major brain drain for economic reasons, it stood to reason that many inexperienced bankers were thrown into the deep end. For example the founding directors of ENG Asset Management had less than five years experience in financial services and yet ENG was the fastest growing financial institution by 2003. It has been suggested that its failure in December 2003 was due to youthful zeal, greed and lack of experience. The collapse of ENG affected some financial institutions that were financially exposed to it, as well as eliciting depositor flight leading to the collapse of some indigenous banks.

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