* Businesses offer discounts for dollar bills
* Charge more for “bond note”, debit card payments
* Local bond notes worth more on eBay than on street
* Importers struggle to trade them in for dollars
* Zimbabwe ditched home-grown dollar in 2009
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE, Feb 24 (Reuters) - When Kelvin Tarumbwa pulled out a wad of $20 notes at a Harare furniture retailer this week to pay for an office chair, the shop assistant was quick to offer a discount on the advertised price.
Tarumbwa had spotted the chair online at $175 but ended up paying $160.
Such under-the-radar transactions are becoming the norm in a country that, since abandoning its own hyperinflation-hit dollar in favour of the U.S. variant in 2009, has experienced crippling cash shortages.
Trying to ease the logjam, authorities introduced a “bond note” they tied to the dollar in November. But that currency - nominally fixed at par but not backed by forex reserves - is now worth more on eBay than on the street.
“We bring our furniture from Malaysia but now banks are saying they cannot process our payments unless you deposit U.S. dollars,” the furniture shop assistant, who gave him name only as Aimed, told Reuters.
“If you deposit bond notes the payment will not be made.”
Importers are also struggling to trade the notes in for dollars as the cash crunch, which has led to long bank queues and delays in cross-border payments, continues to bite.
Central bank figures show total automated teller machine withdrawals fell to $84 million last November, when the bond notes were introduced, from $347 million the prior year.
The bank acknowledges currency shortages but blames them on what it says are illegal exports of foreign exchange, lower exports by the country and falling remittances from Zimbabwe’s diaspora.
Anxious not to draw attention from authorities, small businesses and traders rarely put up U.S. dollar discount signs.
But they operate an informal system of dual prices that effectively devalues the bond notes as well as debit cards. The going rate for car parts dealers in downtown Harare, for instance, is up to 25 percent off for dollars.
The central bank this month started to circulate a $5 bond note, adding to the bright green $2 note introduced in November, stoking fears it could feed an inflationary spiral by flooding the country with more of the non-tradable currency.
The bank denies such risks, saying it will not issue more than $200 million of bond notes and is continuing to work hard to ensure they maintain parity with the dollar.
While Zimbabwean businesses struggle to find buyers for the notes, they are in demand on eBay, where a $2 note is fetching up to $7.59 and punters in Australia are selling the $5 for as much as $23. (www.ebay.com/itm/361878585891)
Under greater scrutiny, larger businesses - including grocery chains Pick N Pay and OK Zimbabwe - are not yet offering cash discounts.
Likewise closely-watched on the street, black market currency traders continue to use the same rate for the bond notes and the dollars when selling the rand currency.
But logjams in the financial system suggest it is only a matter of time before the de facto devaluation becomes more widespread.
Tony Hawkins, professor at the University of Zimbabwe’s Graduate School of Business, said that, as they price in the difficulties of sourcing foreign exchange, larger businesses could soon be forced to sell imported goods at a premium.
The Chamber of Mines, which represents mining firms, and the local Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries say a shortage of dollars in the economy has meanwhile seen banks delaying making external payments. Some banks have stopped the use of international debit cards.
“I don’t think the bond note parity will hold, it’s hard to see how. There are all these negative forces which will push us to some kind of devaluation,” Hawkins said. (editing by John Stonestreet)