What Is Hyperinflation?
Hyperinflation is a situation in the economy when the average price of goods and services increases to such an extent that it rapidly diminishes the purchasing power of a currency. While all economies face some inflation, governments and financial institutions manage inflation rates steadily. Nevertheless, there are numerous historical examples of accelerated hyperinflation that resulted in the devaluation of the currency. According to economist Philip Cagan, hyperinflation starts when the price of goods and services increases by more than 50% in one month. For example, if a sack of rice costs $10 and goes up to $15 in less than 30 days and $22.50 by the following month, we have hyperinflation. In such cases, the price of goods and services can dramatically increase within a day or even hours, leading to a decline in consumer confidence and a decrease in the currency's value. Hyperinflation eventually results in business closures, increased unemployment, and reduced tax revenue. Countries such as Germany, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Greece have experienced such crises.
Hyperinflation in Germany
The Weimar Republic of Germany experienced one of the most well-known examples of hyperinflation following the First World War. The country had borrowed enormous sums of money to finance the war, anticipating they would triumph and use reparations from the Allies to repay these debts. However, Germany lost the battle and had to pay billions of dollars in reparations, resulting in hyperinflation.
The causes of Germany's hyperinflation have been debated. Still, some frequently cited ones include the suspension of the gold standard, the war reparations, and the reckless issuance of paper money. Suspending the gold standard at the beginning of the war meant the amount of money in circulation was not tied to the value of gold the country owned, leading to the devaluation of the German currency. This move forced the Allies to demand that reparations be paid in any cash except for the German paper mark. Germany responded by printing massive amounts of its own money to purchase foreign currency, causing the value of the German mark to depreciate even more.
During this period, inflation rates surged to over 20% per day. The German mark became so worthless that some citizens burned paper money to keep warm, as it was cheaper than buying wood.
Hyperinflation in Venezuela
The crisis that plagued Venezuela is one of the worst in human history, triggered by the 1980s oil glut and worsened by economic mismanagement and corruption of the early 21st century, despite the country's large oil reserves. Inflation rates surged from 69% in 2014 to 181% in 2015, and hyperinflation started in 2016, with 800% inflation by the end of the year, followed by 4,000% in 2017 and over 2,600,000% in early 2019.
In response, President Nicolás Maduro introduced a new currency, the sovereign bolivar, in 2018, with 100,000 bolivares being exchanged for one sovereign bolivar. However, the efficacy of this approach is questionable. Economist Steve Hanke dismissed cutting zeros as "a cosmetic thing" and stressed the need for a change in economic policy.
Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe also experienced hyperinflation, which is considered one of the worst economic crises in history. After gaining independence in 1980, the country's economy remained stable for several years. However, in 1991, President Robert Mugabe launched the Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP), which is believed to have contributed significantly to the country's economic collapse. The program and land reforms led to a significant drop in food production and a severe financial and social crisis.
In the late 1990s, the Zimbabwe dollar (ZWN) began showing signs of instability, leading to hyperinflation episodes in the early 2000s. In 2004, annual inflation rates rose to 624%, followed by 1,730% in 2006 and an estimated 231,150,888% in July 2008.
Professor Steve H. Hanke calculated that Zimbabwe's hyperinflation peaked in November 2008, with an annual rate of 89.7 sextillion percent, equivalent to 79.6 billion percent per month or 98% per day. Zimbabwe became the first country to experience hyperinflation in the 21st century, with the second-worst inflation episode in history after Hungary. The ZWN was officially abandoned in 2008, and foreign currencies were adopted as legal tender.
Cryptocurrencies are becoming increasingly popular in countries experiencing hyperinflation, such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe, due to their decentralized nature and immunity to duplication. Blockchain technology ensures the issuance of new coins follows a predefined schedule. Some governments, such as Sweden, Singapore, Canada, China, and the US, are studying the potential of government-backed cryptocurrencies as an alternative to traditional fiat currency. However, unlike Bitcoin, these cryptocurrencies are unlikely to have a limited or fixed supply and may not create a new paradigm in monetary policy.
The devaluation of traditional currencies can occur rapidly during political or social instability or due to lower demand for a country's sole export. Once a currency depreciates, prices increase rapidly, perpetuating a cycle of decline. In response, some governments have tried printing more money, which has only worsened the situation. As trust in traditional currency decreases, faith in cryptocurrency increases, potentially revolutionizing how money is viewed and dealt with globally.