Investing in Zimbabwe

The flag of Zimbabwe

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: This week, Zimbabwe held a presidential runoff... with one candidate. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangerai pulled out of the race and sought refuge in the Dutch Embassy, but long-time President Robert Mugabe refused international calls to postpone the election.

Zimbabwe's economy has been in free fall since 2000 when Mugabe endorsed a violent land seizure program. Today, four out of five adults are unemployed and the inflation rate tops 165,000 percent.

But Gretchen Wilson reports from Johannesburg that some see opportunity in the country's sad situation.


Gretchen Wilson: Right after Zimbabwe's election in March, it looked as if President Robert Mugabe was on the outs. Zimbabwe's stock exchange soared. But it tanked again when he didn't step down.

That shows just how closely hawk-eyed investors are watching the southern African country.

Geoff Rothschild: There's definitely, in terms of wanting to invest in Zimbabwe, there's definitely international interest.

That's Geoff Rothschild, director of Government and International Affairs at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Rothschild: The great entrepreneurs will see things before they happen, not after they happen, and the time is now before a change in government.

During Mugabe's 28-year tenure, most international investors have left Zimbabwe. One reason: Unstable fiscal policies make for meager profits. Another: Fear of being associated with Mugabe's regime and its alleged human rights abuses.

Dale McKinley is an economic analyst in Johannesburg.

Dale McKinley: Because to be found out to be dealing with a moral and socioeconomic pariah would invite resistance, would invite potential shareholder criticism, would invite a whole range of problems at home.

But observers say that's changing. They say Zimbabwe is in endgame because no government in modern history has debased its currency this much and survived. And that's getting investors excited about Zimbabwe's potential.

The country's bigger than Montana and has everything: Prime agricultural land, 12 million people, which means new markets for banking and telecommunications and, of course, commodities.

McKinley: So everybody's looking to get in on the chromium, the gold, the platinum, all of those kinds of things.

Red-hot commodity prices are fueling growth. Platinum prices alone have climbed 90 percent since the beginning of last year and African stock markets are on fire from Ghana to Botswana.

Carol Pineau: You know, you just cannot believe the returns that we're talking about: stock markets that are making 100+ percent growth. Those are just astounding returns.

That's filmmaker Carol Pineau. Her new documentary is called "Africa Investment Horizons." When it debuted at the New York Stock Exchange in April, it was standing room only.

She says the U.S. economy needs Africa to survive. We're talking crude oil from Nigeria and Angola and copper from Zambia.

Pineau: And if we don't quite realize that, let me assure you the Chinese definitely know it and they are heavily competing for all of those resources. If we don't hurry up and get it together to start really getting into Africa in a big way, the Chinese and Indians will have bought everything up.

China has traded openly with Mugabe's regime even as the leader has been shunned by the IMF, World Bank and Western countries. These Western donors are keen to bankroll a democratic government.

But Zimbabwe may not be the investment Shangri-La that people are hoping for. Chris Hart is an economist in Johannesburg. He says people have to remember that this is nearly a failed state and that even in a recovery, its $10-20 billion economy is still relatively small potatoes.

Chris Hart: And it'll be a long, long road. It's not going to be quick and easy. The recovery process will be quite painful.

Painful because Zimbabwe will need bring its inflation to a screeching halt and tame the widespread black market. To get the country's budget in the back in the black, it will have to make significant cuts. That means government workers like teachers and engineers may lose their jobs.

In Johannesburg, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace Money.

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