The List: The World's Worst Currencies

Most countries seem to have finally whipped inflation—at least for now. But not everyone is celebrating the world’s impressive economic stability. In today’s List, FP takes a hard look at the soft currencies of some of the most unstable economies on the planet.

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Somalia

Currency: Somali shilling (SOS); Somaliland, an independent region not recognized by any country, also issues its own currency called the Somaliland shilling

Inflation rate: Nobody knows. Whatever it is, its not low.

Exchange rate: 1,387.77 SOS per US$1

What went wrong? Everything. Its no surprise that the U.S. dollar and not the shilling is the Somalis currency of choice for large transactions and foreign trade. When the Somali state collapsed in 1991, the Central Bank of Somalia collapsed with it, along with the entire banking system. The Somaliland and Puntland regions developed their own versions of central banks, and what remains in the rest of the country is an informal monetary system run by speculators in outdoor markets like Bakaara, Somalias largest. With no central regulating authority, traders make up the rules and prices as they go along, and counterfeiting is rampant. When the defunct Central Bank stopped printing notes, private businessmen and warlords merely imported new shillings printed in Canada or Southeast Asia as needed. The World Bank estimates that as much as 80 percent of the currency in circulation is forged, reprinted, or new currencies. The worst part? The 1,000 shilling note is the only note available in some parts of the country, even though a cup of tea costs 500 shillings.

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Iraq

Currency: The new Iraqi dinar (NID)

Inflation rate: 40.92 percent in April 2007

Exchange rate: 1,260 NID per US$1

What went wrong? The war. In October 2003, the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority introduced the New Iraqi Dinar to replace the old Swiss dinars that featured the likeness of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. But the new design may have been the high point for the NID. Iraqs inflation rate averaged 50 percent last year, as spiraling security costs and persistent shortages of gasoline fueled rampant inflation, while black market profiteers bid up the unofficial price of petrol. Struggling to keep inflation in check, Iraqs beleaguered central bank allowed the dinar to appreciate by 14 percent and raised interest rates to 20 percent in December 2006. Inflation reached a peak of more than 66 percent in January 2007, but declined to a mere 40 percent in April. Its an encouraging sign, but unless the countrys raging sectarian violence gets under control, not even Alan Greenspan will be able to turn Iraqs economy around.

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North Korea

Currency: North Korean won (KPW)

Inflation rate: Who knows? Most prices, to the extent that they exist at all, are set by the central government.

Exchange rate: Officially, 141 KPW per US$1; 2,500 KPW/$ or higher on the black market

What went wrong? When was it ever right? Until the last few years, North Korean President Kim Jong Il had pegged North Koreas currency at a rate of 2.16 won to the dollara ludicrously low peg given the worthlessness of the won. (It so happens that February 16 is the mercurial dictators birthday.) Even with the changed peg, though, experts say that North Koreas official exchange rate bears no relationship to any underlying economic reality. Thats because, as the last Stalinist state on Earth, North Korea doesnt have much of a market economy to speak of. And despite its official state ideology of self-sufficiency, juche, the North Korean regime must turn abroad for luxury items for its elites and for high-technology components for its military. But since the country exports little of value and nobody wants to be stuck with North Korean currency, the state has turned to weapons sales, drugs, counterfeiting, and other illicit activities in order to close the estimated $1.7 billion annual gap between its means and its hard currency needs. And now, the North Koreans have an inflation crisis on their hands. Prices skyrocketed beginning in 2002 as the government began experimenting with market reforms that untapped repressed inflation; the price of rice, for instance, rose by 550 percent. Meanwhile, the black market price for U.S. dollars has soared as the United States has applied a financial squeeze on the country. The minor role played by money in the North Korean economy mitigates the effects of hyperinflation to some extent, but even Kim Jong Il has to be quaking in his boots.

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Venezuela

Currency: The bolvar (VEB)

Inflation rate: 19.5 percent as of May 2007

Exchange rate: Officially, 2,150 bolvars per dollar. But recently, the bolvar has been trading as high as 4,110 bolvars per U.S. dollar in the black markets.

What went wrong? With massive public spending fueling inflation and President Hugo Chvezs nationalization campaign triggering a massive outflow of capital, its been a bad year for the bolvar. Thanks mainly to the high price of oil, many of Venezuelas economic fundamentals look sound. But Venezuelas currency has lost 21 percent of its value since January 2007, the worst performance of all 72 currencies tracked by Bloomberg News. Seeking to staunch the bleeding, Chvez has announced a bizarre series of measures, including imprisonment for those who violate price caps, removing three zeroes from the bolvar and renaming it the strong bolvar andmost bizarre of allthe reintroduction of 12.5-cent coin that Chvez promises will help whip inflation. When introducing the coin in March, he boasted, Were going to end monetary instability in Venezuela.

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Zimbabwe

Currency: Zimbabwean dollar (ZWD)

Inflation rate: 3,714 percent and rising

Exchange rate: Officially, 250 ZWD per US$1; unofficially, as high as 60,000 ZWD to the U.S. dollar*

What went wrong? In a word, Mugabe. Even as neighboring African countries have prospered, Zimbabwes brutal and mercurial president, Robert Mugabe, has single-handedly taken a wrecking ball to his countrys economy. His economic mismanagementmost notably his disastrous land reform initiatives that began in 2000has led to massive agricultural failure, severe commodity shortages, a flight of capital and skilled labor, and hyperinflation. The economy has shrunk by about 30 percent since 1999. The International Monetary Fund projects that Zimbabwes economy will contract by another 5.7 percent this year, and inflation will easily top 6,000 percent in 2008.

*Editor's note: Zimbabwe's unofficial exchange rate is even higher than we originally thought, and it's changing by the minute.

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