Burned by last crisis, Zimbabweans seek to shelter their savings

"I no longer trust pension people. [A] pension is supposed to help secure your financial future when you can't work any more. Without it, life after retirement would be a mess."

Salome Makani, a 45-year-old procurement officer in Harare, is currently poised to experience that mess, but not through any fault of her own.

A habitual saver, she saw her pension wiped out when she was in her mid-30s. This was at the height of Zimbabwe's economic crisis a decade ago. "My experience has not been a good one," Makani told Al Jazeera. "I know better now."

Makani's road to disillusionment with Zimbabwe's pensions system dates to 2009, when hyperinflation forced the government to abandon its sovereign currency and adopt the US dollar.

Like many Zimbabweans, Makani left her job - a position she had held for 13 years, with one of the country's top insurance companies - to seek better opportunities beyond Zimbabwe's borders. But the pension she had tucked away during that time soon became worthless, thanks to hyperinflation. 

Pensioners in Zimbabwe, who are estimated to number about 500 000, are among the hardest hit by the Southern African nation's economic crisis.

"When you resign, you get a withdrawal benefit from your pension," she explained. "I had left the country in that period and the company I worked for gave my husband a cheque. In the process of cashing it, hyperinflation eroded its value."

Zimbabweans now fear history could repeat itself after the country outlawed the US dollar as legal tender in June in an unsuccessful bid to stop speculative attacks on its fledgling interim sovereign currency, the Real Time Gross Settlement dollar, or Zimdollar.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe's annual inflation rate from August 2018 through August 2019 was at 300% - the highest in the world.

With the spectre of hyperinflation looming large over the troubled nation, pensioners are fearful that their savings could once again be gutted. But fund managers have gotten savvier this time around.

Savings decimated

Archford Vheremu, a 67-year-old pensioner, says he received a meagre pension payout when he retired 12 years ago.

"I got around $1.8m Zimbabwean dollars in 2007 as my pension payout," he told Al Jazeera. "The following year, all that money lost its value."

His savings decimated, Vheremu believes it's unlikely he'll ever retire, despite his advancing years. "I still have to work to survive at my age," he said.

But hyperinflation is not the only menace to future financial security for Zimbabweans who are trying to save for retirement. The government compels all pension funds to invest a minimum of 20% of their assets - known as "prescribed assets" - in government-approved bonds.

These fixed-income instruments pay periodic interest payments and then return the full amount originally invested (also known as the principal) when the bond matures.

Fixed-income assets provide a steady rate of payment, which is beneficial when prices are stable. But when there is runaway inflation, as there is in Zimbabwe, the interest paid on a fixed-income instrument can fall far behind rising prices.

"Normal prescribed assets that have been issued by the government, if they are fixed-income securities, don't work in a hyperinflation environment," said Motor Industry Pension Fund chief Raymond Manhika. "They just erode value."

"It's like putting your money in the bank for a rate of 5% when there is a hyperinflation," Manhika told Al Jazeera. "It's a negative real return. That is precisely how the prescribed assets issued by [the] government were structured."

Manhika pointed to the example of a housing bond with a 12-year maturity that he says all pension funds were required to buy.

"We invested into that bond for a fixed interest rate for 12 years," he said. "Now look at it. The rate [of interest it pays] is 7.5%" - a pittance considering that overnight lending rates in Zimbabwe have soared to 70%.

Prescribed assets 

As of June, the country's insurance regulator, the Insurance and Pensions Commission, said a total of 510 million Zimbabwean dollars (worth US$25m, at commonly used black-market exchange rates) had been invested in prescribed assets. That figure is less than half of the compulsory 20% minimum mandated by the government.

The pension industry asset base increased by more than 30% between March and June 30 to reach 7.04 billion Zimdollars ($350m), thanks largely to rising values for investment property and equities - both of which are attractive to investors and fund managers looking to hedge against a falling currency.

Following public outrage over eroded pension values during Zimbabwe's last economic crisis - which ended with dollarisation in 2009 - former finance minister Patrick Chinamasa reported to Parliament on the devastating impact of hyperinflation on retirement savings.

"Most complainants indicated that their pensions were reduced from several hundreds or thousands of dollars to a few US cents," he said. "One pensioner showed a pension cheque of $0.08 sent to him by a life insurance company in 2014 as settlement of a life policy, and no explanation was offered on how such a figure was arrived at."

With Zimbabwe's economy descending into crisis again, some fund managers are flaunting the controversial investment regulations this time around.

Even ordinary Zimbabweans with funds under the care of big asset management firms have been withdrawing their money and investing in asset classes such as real estate that they feel will preserve the value of their retirement savings.

Jonas Mushosho, the former chief executive of pension management firm Old Mutual Zimbabwe, told analysts and journalists in Harare last month that a number of investors are now withdrawing funds, rather than seeing them eroded by fixed-income investments that fail to keep pace with the country's inflation.

"A lot of our customers who had parked money with us withdrew their money in order to buy foreign currency on the interbank market," said Mushosho, who left his position shortly after making this pronouncement.

Speaking beside Mushosho, Old Mutual chief investment officer Marjorie Mayida said her company - one of Zimbabwe's largest pension managers - was investing primarily in stocks and property as well.