May 26, 2011
May 12, 2011
"A 100-trillion-dollar bill, it turns out, is worth about $5.
Photo Above: A man in Harare, Zimbabwe, carried cash for groceries in 2008.
That's the going rate for Zimbabwe's highest denomination note, the biggest ever produced for legal tender—and a national symbol of monetary policy run amok. At one point in 2009, a hundred-trillion-dollar bill couldn't buy a bus ticket in the capital of Harare.
But since then the value of the Zimbabwe dollar has soared. Not in Zimbabwe, where the currency has been abandoned, but on eBay.
The notes are a hot commodity among currency collectors and novelty buyers, fetching 15 times what they were officially worth in circulation. In the past decade, President Robert Mugabe and his allies attempted to prop up the economy—and their government—by printing money. Instead, the country's central bankers sparked hyperinflation by issuing bills with more zeros.
The 100-trillion-dollar note, circulated for just a few months before the Zimbabwe dollar was officially abandoned as the country's legal currency in 2009, marked the daily limit people were allowed to withdraw from their bank accounts. Prices rose, wreaking havoc.
The runaway inflation forced Zimbabweans to wait in line to buy bread, toothpaste and other essentials. They often carried bigger bags for their money than the few items they could afford with a devalued currency.
Today, all transactions are in foreign currencies, mainly the U.S. dollar and the South African rand. But Zimbabwe's worthless bills are valuable—at least outside the country. That Zimbabwe's currency happened to be denoted in dollars has amplified appeal, say currency dealers and collectors, particularly after the global financial crisis and mounting public debts sparked inflationary fears in the U.S.
"People pick them up and make jokes about when that's going to happen here," says David Laties, owner of the Educational Coin Company, a currency wholesaler based in Highland, N.Y.
Dealers prescient enough to buy Zimbabwe's biggest notes while they were in circulation are now taking their investment to the bank. Mr. Laties spent $150,000 buying bills from people in South Africa and Tanzania with experience moving currency and other clandestine cargo, including migrants, across Zimbabwe's borders. Sensing that Zimbabwe's last dollars would be "the best notes ever" on the collector's market, he even fronted $5,000 to someone who approached him over the Internet.
"It worked out," he says. "I got my notes."
Frank Templeton, a retired Wall Street equities trader, bought "quintillions of Zimbabwe dollars" through a broker from Zimbabwe's central bank. On eBay, he now does a brisk trade in the bills from his home in the Hamptons, on New York's Long Island. "I like to say Warren Buffett made a lot of people millionaires, but I've made more people trillionaires," Mr. Templeton says. The dealer paid between $1 and $2 for each of the bills in several purchases over about a year, and now sells them for around $5-$6 apiece.