After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was divided in two: the south ruled by Saddam Hussein, the north governed by the local Kurds. Saddam needed money to finance government spending, and in the time-honoured tradition of dictators, created it himself. The Government could not import more of the bank notes then in use, because of U.N. sanctions, so Saddam ordered the local printing of a new currency. In May 1993, the Central Bank of Iraq announced that citizens had three weeks to exchange their old 25-dinar notes for the new "Saddam dinars", which bore his portrait.
During the next few years, so many Saddam dinars were printed in southern Iraq that they became virtually worthless. The face value of cash in circulation rose from 22 billion dinars in 1991 to 584 billion in four years, and inflation averaged about 250 per cent a year.
Those who lived in northern Iraq could not exchange their notes, and the old 25-dinar notes continued to circulate. These notes became known as the "Swiss dinars" because they were printed using plates manufactured in Switzerland. The fact that the Swiss dinars continued to be used at all speaks of the power of social conventions. The Kurds in the north despised the Baghdad Government, and would have much preferred to have their own currency.
The Swiss dinar was in fixed supply, while the Saddam dinar was flying off the printing presses, so it is not surprising that the Swiss dinar quickly became more valuable. By spring 2003, it took 300 Saddam dinars to buy one Swiss dinar.
The more interesting economic effect was the behaviour of the Swiss dinar against the dollar. In the fall of 2002, as it became more and more likely that the U.S. would invade, the Swiss dinar became more and more valuable.
This appreciation was driven by expectations. If the Kurds had expected that they would once again fall under Saddam's sway, the Swiss dinar would have quickly become worthless. As this became less likely, and the belief that future governments would accept the Swiss dinar became more widespread, the local currency became more valuable. Of course, every exchange rate movement can be interpreted in two ways: in the north, the Kurdish regional Government initially interpreted the rise in the Swiss dinar against the dollar as a fall in the value of the dollar.
The Government soon realised, however, that since the dollar was stable against other currencies, the correct explanation was that recounted above: the increasing belief that the Swiss dinars would, in fact, be honoured by future governments.
The Government was right. On July 7, 2003, the U.S. occupation administrator, L. Paul Bremer, announced the creation of a new Iraqi dinar that would be exchanged for the two existing currencies at a rate that implied that one Swiss dinar would be worth 150 Saddam dinars.
Interestingly, the currency markets valued the Swiss dinars somewhat higher than the official 150 exchange rate, primarily because many counterfeit 10,000-dinar Saddam notes were in circulation.
This story illustrates that paper currency can take on a life of its own, even in the absence of government backing. At the same time, it is clear that government backing makes a significant contribution to the value of paper currency: The more likely it became that the Swiss dinars would be valued by a subsequent government, the more valuable they became.
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