Watch this GIF, Venezuela, and feel your heart sink. Things may be bad now, but they’re about to get much, much worse. What you see here is a global forecast by the IMF for national unemployment and inflation rates through to 2020. Unemployment is color-coded, following the traffic-light symbolism: green is good (or least bad), with unemployment below 10%, yellow is worse (jobless rate between 10% and 20%), red is terrible (more than 20% unemployed). Inflation is size-related: the bigger your country, the faster its currency depreciates.
The U.S., by the way, remains solidly green, and has a small inflationary burp, up from 0.12% last year to a peak of 2.49% in 2019. But that’s nothing compared to what awaits the already impoverished citizens of Venezuela. As the GIF shows, no country in the world is projected to do as spectacularly bad as theirs.
Already last year, Venezuela had the world’s worst inflation rate, at just under 122%. That’s almost two and a half times as much as the second-worst performing country, newly-independent, underdeveloped and war-torn South Sudan (53%). This year, Venezuela’s already world-beating inflation rate is expected to quadruple to 482%. As it gets worse every year, the only consolation is that the rate at which the inflation increases is at least slowing down. From this year to the next, inflation is slated to grow by a factor 3.5 to 1,643%. From 2017 to 2018, the multiplication rate should be about 1.75, to 2,881%. Inflation could be as bad as 3,497% in 2019, 1.2 times as much as the previous year; and 3,960% in 2020, only 1.1 times as bad as in 2019.
As the GIF shows, low-level inflation is the norm in most economies: the price of goods and services rises in concert with the wages required to produce them, but change is gradual and currency values are relatively stable. Hyperinflation if the nightmare cousin of ‘normal’ inflation: money devalues rapidly, noticeably and dramatically, and prices shoot up accordingly.
Venezuela is not the first country to go into hyperinflation, and it is likely to suffer some of the same symptoms as previous victims, such as Germany, where hyperinflation peaked in 1923, by which time it was issuing two-trillion Reichsmark banknotes and fifty-billion Reichsmark postage stamps. In January 1923, 5 million Reichsmark would have been worth 714 U.S. dollars. By October, that same amount in German money was worth one thousandth of a cent in American money.
The highest denomination ever issued was the 100 quintillion (a 1 followed by 20 zeroes) pengö banknote in Hungary in 1946. In July of that year, hyperinflation had reached such levels in Hungary that prices doubled every 15 hours.
At independence in 1980, one Zimbabwean dollar officially was worth 1.47 U.S. dollar. By 2008, you needed 688 billion Zimbabwean dollars to buy one U.S. dollar. Hospitals and schools in Zimbabwe were understaffed because nurses and teachers couldn’t afford the bus fare to work. Hyperinflation peaked at 89.7 sextilion percent per annum (that’s 89.7 followed by 21 zeroes) in November 2008. In 2009, the Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned; the country now mostly uses the U.S. dollar, but also the South African rand and even the Chinese yuan.
‘Dollarization’ has snapped several countries out of their hyperinflationary tailspin, and it may eventually be the solution for Venezuela too, as people convert their assets into stabler currencies – with or without the consent of the government.
Meanwhile, most other countries are projected to keep the inflationary monster well in check. South Sudan and Ukraine (49% in 2015) are projected to bring down the rate to single digits by 2020, at which time Yemen (10%) is predicted to be the only double-digit inflation country left – except Venezuela, of course.
Venezuela’s red colour suggests a link between rampant inflation and high unemployment, but the connection isn’t as straightforward as all that. In 2015, Spain, Greece and South Africa all had more than 20% unemployment, but the first two experienced negative inflation (prices going down). By 2020, only South Africa is projected to have >20% unemployment.
Negative inflation (or deflation) isn’t as much fun as it sounds, by the way. It increases the value of debt, leads to underinvestment and may prolong the duration of an economic depression.