Ethiopia Cracks Down on Black Market Forex Exchange as $1 Trades for Over Br.100
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The black market for foreign exchange in Ethiopia has been exhibiting a rapidly increasing gap from the official bank exchange rate, passing through the 90-birr mark in early September before reaching the hundreds in October 2022. According to Borkena, $1 was fetching as high as 120 Ethiopian birr, a two-fold jump from the 53- birr banks were selling it for.
The matter was further complicated by the discovery of bank officials’ involvement involved in feeding the black market, along with the other two main culprits: diasporas and illegal Hawala agents. It was found that a single foreign Hawala operator sends forex up to 80 times every week.
In an effort to reverse what has now become a leading cause for the loss of considerable revenue to the government in addition to aggravating inflation, the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) has introduced a series of regulatory measures against this illegal market. Although the central bank has launched crackdowns several times prior to this, they had been mostly ineffective.
What’s different this time? Well for one, NBE has introduced several incentive packages for informants who expose black market operators, in a bid to prolong the effectiveness of the measure and make it more appealing to citizens. According to Yinager Dessie, Governor of NBE, informants are rewarded with 25,000-birr per illegal hawala agent they expose and also get 25% of the cash apprehended.
To further hedge against other such activities, the amount of cash holdings outside of the bank is now 100,000-birr for individuals and 200,000-birr for businesses. Anonymous informants of excess holdings could get up to 15% of the seized cash value once the court ruled that the holding is illegal.
NBE has also put in a system that enables it to monitor irregular mobile banking, internet banking, and account transfers between locals and foreigners, as well as the domestic market. With these tools in place, the crackdown began.
On October 7, 2022, NBE revealed that the bank accounts of 391 illegal Hawala transfer providers had been frozen, with preparations underway to open legal suits via the Ministry of Justice. Two days later, on Monday, the Financial Intelligence Center (FIC) announced the number of frozen bank accounts had reached 665.
According to The Reporter Ethiopia, a week after the central bank announced this major clampdown on black market operators, the exchange rate in the parallel market dropped on average from 100-birr to 75-birr. As a result, the spread between the official and market exchange rates reduced from 47 to 29%. This effect was the opposite of the expected outcomes.
While such restrictions would push up the price of dollars in the black market, it seems that the demand has fallen faster than the supply of forex. As per the statement of a former broker in the market, none of the shadow market buyers, who are usually importers, investors, brokers, foreigners, and travelers, are coming to buy forex after the strike because they are afraid.
There is doubt, however, that these measures are permanent. As has previously happened, new black-market operators are bound to turn up, with more sophisticated and smarter operating systems. Many factors have stimulated the parallel market to bulge, and treating the effect rather than the root of the problem may yield only short-term relief.
The major reason driving the black market is the inability to access foreign currency from official sources due to the depleted forex reserve. And the devaluation is not helping matters either.
With regards to the forex shortage, the government has imposed a temporary restriction on importing 38 goods deemed unnecessary and aims to save close to 100 million dollars per year.
Among the major items barred from importation are automobiles, motorcycles, and three-wheelers, whose (already imported) prices might skyrocket as a result. Yinager, when asked by The Reporter, did not comment on the contribution of the ongoing devaluation to the expansion of the black market.