I got tired of the daily grind and living as part of the rat race. I want a yacht, so I should be able to buy a yacht. I’ve always wanted to own a country, so I figured I should put myself in a position to purchase one. Then, as fate would have it, I stumbled across an Amazon.com listing for a One Hundred Trillion dollar bill for the low price of $9.99. I had to jump on this before somebody else did – what choice did I have?
Jokes aside, the image in this article is an actual Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe One Hundred Trillion dollar bill. It is real, and up until 2009 -when the currency was taken out of circulation- it was actually used in the country of Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s Hyperinflation Problem
I’m not an economist and I won’t pretend to be, but I’ve given you the “show” portion of my show-and-tell, so now I’m obligated to tell you what I know about it (I’ve been peddling this thing around my office for the last week doing this, so I’ve got my story straight at this point).
The Zimbabwean dollar which had the symbol of Z$ to differentiate from the US dollar was introduced in 1980 to replace the Rhodesian dollar and was actually considered to be one of the most valuable currencies in the world at that time. Early on in Zimbabwe’s history, they experienced substantial growth and prosperity primarily based on wheat and tobacco exports. In the 1990’s, the Zimbabwe government instituted land reforms which essentially stripped farmland from white owners and redistributed it to black farmers. The purpose of the reform was to correct previous injustices due to colonialism. The problem with this plan, however, was that they were effectively transferring land from experienced farmers with great financial backing to inexperienced farmers who did not have the tools or equipment to efficiently farm the land. In the ensuing years, Zimbabwe experienced a significant reduction in export crops which took a great toll on their economy and led to an 80% unemployment rate at one point.
Due to the rapid decline in production -as well as political turmoil in Zimbabwe and rampant printing of money to fund their involvement in wars and funding government violence to stifle political opposition- the currency went into hyperinflation. At its peak in November of 2008, the inflation rate was 79,600,000,000% per month. At that point, a single US dollar was worth nearly three billion Zimbabwean dollars.
The inflation was so bad that, at one point, a loaf of bread cost Z$500 million, and there was even a black market in the country for goods. The Zimbabwean dollar went through multiple new issuances of denominations, each increasing to account for the rising cost of goods using their currency. In 2006, the Zimbabwean government even printed off a Z$21 trillion bill to pay off debt it owed to the International Monetary Fund.
The Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned in the middle of 2009, and today the most commonly traded currency in the country is the US dollar, though there are many different currencies accepted depending on the merchant.
Why I Really Bought a Z$100 Trillion Bill
To be honest, I think it’s a great conversation starter. People are always fascinated by the story when they hear it, and are always skeptical that the bill I’m showing them is real. It’s real, and people actually carried these around in their wallets. It’s literally worthless today other than as a collectible item. Even then, there are a ton of these in existence so it really doesn’t function all that well as a collectible – it is more of a novelty item.
The powerful lesson in all this is that financial policy is important, both at the government level as well as the personal level. If you don’t invest the time to understand money and you don’t make your financial decisions with sound logic, then you’d might as well be carrying a handful of these around in your wallet. In Zimbabwe’s case, rather than tackling their financial issues by fixing the errors they made that brought them to this crisis, they continued making errors that compounded the problem in a way the world has rarely ever seen.
I find the whole situation fascinating, although very tragic for the people who lived, worked, and earned money in Zimbabwean dollars at the time. Can you imagine getting paid today, and then by next month that money is worth a small fraction of what it was worth when you got it?