W ITH counterfeiters, currency speculators and crisp redesigned bills for a new
era of capitalism all in the mix, the state of the Cambodian currency has become
a hot topic even on the cocktail circuit these days. Just about everyone, it
seems, has heard one explanation or another why the riel has been bouncing like
a yo-yo against the dollar over the past three weeks.
appreciation in the value of the riel, up nearly 20 percent against the US
dollar at one point on April 7 before the rate began to drop back down toward
previous levels, has led government finance and National Bank officials to take
a variety of actions to keep Cambodia's delicate monetary system on
As of early this week, the National Bank's moves seemed to be
working as intended.
May Tola, the deputy director of exchange management
department for the National Bank, said the riel settled at a market exchange
rate on Tuesday afternoon of 2,262 to the dollar, which would mean it was up
about ten percent from where it was before the volatility began. The riel had
remained stable around 2,500 for most of 1994.
Also on Tuesday, the first
day of official business after the Khmer New Year holiday weekend, the National
Bank resumed its dollar auction - which were cancelled at various times during
the past two weeks.
It said there was reason to continue through the week
with the normal daily auctions, which were established in September, 1993. The
auctions are integral to Cambodia's banking system because they enable the
National Bank to absorb riel back into the banking system, by exchanging the
government's donor dollars for the riels the government needs to operate. At the
auctions, dollars are generally bought by importers who want dollars to conduct
business or by currency exchangers.
Tola said the usual volume of
$700,000 dollars was sold at the auction Tuesday and that $700,000 would also be
sold Wednesday. The resumption of the dollar auction is significant because if
the National Bank did not think that the appreciation of the riel was leveling
off, it would not make a move to lower the demand for dollars by putting more
"We do have people who wonder why we're selling US
dollars when the (riel) rate is appreciating. We want to smooth the rate, not
turn the rate the way it should go," Tola said
But while the exchange
rate looked during the week of April 17 to be at least headed back toward
stability, the sudden appreciation of the riel that became apparent on April 7
had sent the National Bank and government into mild convulsions over what to do.
That led to widespread theorizing as to what might be causing the
One widely held belief is that currency speculators, in
particular an unidentified group of Chinese businessman who are said to have
been setting the value of the riel "in a hotel room" for the past several years,
may have bought up great volumes of riels shortly after the government started
putting its new denominations of riel into circulation on March 25.
Chinese traders have been the exchange market for years - since the late '80s
basically," according to one financial source who tracks economic issues in
One knowledgeable source said that it was possible that
speculators affected the market. "This is a thin market and whatever they buy
with, dollars or gold, it could have that effect."
The Minister of
Finance, Keat Chhon, gave some support to that theory at a press conference
April 3 when he said there was some speculation going on in the new
He said he didn't know who the speculators were, but there
might be several people who had pooled their money. "Our concern is that after
the New Year, the riel is goiing to depreciate," he said.
Tola said that
if the riel depreciated back to 2,500, nothing was lost. The volatility has been
too brief to cause inflation. People might have found food or fuel prices to be
Another popular theory was that counterfeiters had a lot
to do with the rising riel because people now believed, in the wake of two
seizures of counterfeit US dollars, that using dollars wasn't worth the risk. At
the same time, as fears about counterfeiting were increasing, the newly printed
large denomination riels had just been released, for the first time making the
riel a viabile option to dollars.
A third theory was that Cambodians
simply liked the new riels, so the reils became more valuable. In fact, the
psychological effect of the newly issued bills was so favorable, they were
hanging on to them in numbers great enough to reduce the overall liquidity of
the riel in the marketplace, thereby raising its value. The crisp new currency
carries a picture and the signature of the King, which is more pleasing than the
old currency with its picture of a farm cooperative. The new currency is printed
in France, while the old currency was printed in Russia. All are signs of a new
Still others argued that the riel would be appreciating because the
US dollar was down in international markets, having fallen 13 percent against
the Japanese Yen and German Mark since the beginning of the year.
each scenario probably contributed to the volatility of the riel. Tola said
Cambodia's currency situation operated somewhat independently of the
international markets for several reasons. For one, Cambodia's is a society
which deals in dollars. For another, people until recently had not had faith in
either the local currency or the local banks, thus leading to the use of the
dollar in the first place.
The appreciation of the riel with the
introduction of the new currency was hardly what the National Bank officials
expected. Inflation was their big fear. Last year, when the idea of a new
currency was floated by former finance minister Sam Rainsy the exchange rate
shot up to about 2,800. Last October when the announcement that the new currency
would indeed be issued, the rate rose again.
"So there was a lot of
concern," said Tola. However, he said TV announcements and other publicity about
the new currency evidently alleviated people's potential fears, and the new
bills were adopted with greater enthusiasm than predicted.
adoption of the new currency could accelerate the "de-dollarization" of
Cambodia. The long-term monetary plan is to move Cambodia away from its dual use
of dollars and riels, and eventually make the riel the exclusive currency.