Zimbabwe: When Price Controls Fail... [hilzoy]

When last we checked in on the slow-motion disaster that is Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe had decided to impose price controls. Predictably, this just caused shops to become empty: when people cannot sell at a profit, they tend not to sell at all. According to the Zimbabwe Independent:

"Business lost over $40 trillion since government declared war on big business. As a result government lost $13,1 trillion in revenue and that is when the warning bells sounded, prompting a rapid policy shift on the matter."

Now that price controls have been called off, what do you suppose Mugabe has done? If you guessed imposing controls on wages, you win!

" Zimbabwe’s government slapped a six-month freeze on wages, rents and service fees on Friday, the latest step in what some analysts call an increasingly desperate campaign to sustain an economy gutted by hyperinflation. (...)

The new freeze, announced in Friday’s editions of government-controlled newspapers, is intended to combat an annual inflation rate that the government says exceeds 7,600 percent, and private economists say is twice that. It bars businesses from indexing wages or fees to inflation, a method employed in many wage agreements.

All increases must now be approved by a government commission, the state-run Herald newspaper reported.

The freeze follows a decree issued in late June that forced merchants and wholesalers to reduce all prices by at least 50 percent. Shoppers stripped store shelves of clothes, meat and other basic goods after that decree, and producers have largely failed to ship new stock because goods now sell for less than it costs to make them.

Most commodities are now available only on the black market, where prices have continued to skyrocket. Moreover, as the last remaining stocks of goods trickle out of factory warehouses and onto the market, Zimbabwe could soon see the start of an inflationary spiral that would make today’s prices seem cheap, John Robertson, a Harare economist, said in an interview.

“It could go much higher 10 times as much for some things in the next couple of weeks, as goods cease to exist,” he said."

The BBC quotes Robertson as saying: "I just wonder when they will try and reverse the laws of gravity, because this does not work." It's a pity Mugabe doesn't seem to realize that.

Last January, I posted a compilation of catastrophes that had befallen Zimbabwe during the previous week or two: doctors and teachers on strike, water shortages, sewage treatment plants crumbling, people unable to go to work because the bus fare was too expensive, upper- and middle-class Zimbabweans resorting to urban gardening in desperation: you name it. Since then, things have gotten much, much worse, and yet somehow, mysteriously, the government is holding on.

Sometime, something will have to give; I only hope that whoever replaces Mugabe when it does has some shred of concern for the Zimbabwean people, who have suffered enormously.