Business

Indonesia government mulls rupiah redenomination

A lady carrying Indonesian rupiahs
Image caption The low value of the Indonesian rupiah means consumers have to carry large amounts of money

20,200. That's how much my daily fix of coffee costs.

Every month, give or take a few days off, I spend more than 600,000 on coffee. Sounds ludicrous doesn't it?

Before you start reaching for your complaint forms, trust me, BBC journalists aren't paid so lavishly that they can spend thousands on caffeine.

There's a simple explanation for those figures. They're in Indonesian rupiah.

It takes roughly 9,000 rupiah to buy one US dollar these days.

Although increasingly people are using their credit cards in the financial capital of Jakarta, and in other big Indonesian cities, to pay for big ticket items, the rupiah is still an unwieldy currency to deal with for small businesses that deal mainly in cash.

That's one of the reasons Indonesia is proposing to simplify things - so that you don't have to walk around with hundreds of thousands in your wallet.

Next year it is hoping to decide on the rupiah's redenomination - whether or not to chop off three zeros off the end of the currency, so that a 1,000 note for example would become a new one rupiah note or coin.

What that would mean is that under this new plan it would take approximately nine rupiah to buy one US dollar, instead of 9,000 at present.

'Growing self confidence'

The plan is being welcomed by some members of the international business community.

"Personally, I think this is a great idea - it is a sheer inconvenience to have it the way that it is," says Debnath Guharoy of the financial consultancy Roy Morgan.

The firm has large investments in Indonesia and Mr Guharoy has been doing business here for years.

"The move shows a growing self confidence in Indonesia - and that is good for the world to see. It is decidedly unattractive to have a perception that Indonesia has a Mickey Mouse currency - a hangover left behind from the Asian financial crisis years. But Indonesia is a different country today."

Indeed it is.

During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Indonesia's rupiah virtually collapsed, triggering wide-spread economic unrest.

It fell to a low of 16,800 rupiah per US dollar, from previous levels of around 2000-3000 rupiah per US dollar.

The meltdown of the Indonesian rupiah reflected the lack of confidence both international and domestic investors had in the country's fundamentals.

Today though, it is a different story.

Investment grade economy

This December, international ratings agency Fitch upgraded Indonesia's sovereign rating back to investment grade status after 14 years - a rating it had lost after the 1997 financial crisis.

Experts agree that Indonesia has had a remarkable reversal of fortunes.

Image caption The Indonesian rupiah has seen great volatility in the last two decades

The economy is likely to do markedly better than many of its neighbours, even in the face of the eurozone crisis.

Inflation has steadily been kept under control too - and all of these are factors as to why the rupiah redenomination plan is under discussion.

It's not the first time Indonesia will have had such a straightforward exchange rate though - back when the rupiah was first introduced, around the time of Indonesia's independence, one US dollar was worth 3.8 Indonesian rupiah.

But the path from 3.8 to the US dollar, to the current 9,000, has been a tumultuous one. There are concerns that this proposal will remind the Indonesian public of the financial crises in the past, prompting panic amongst local investors.

That's why even if the rupiah redenomination plan does get voted through next year, the government won't implement it immediately - it will take 10 years for the process to be completed.

A widespread public information campaign will be part of the initial two years of the proposal, and the use of the "new" rupiah isn't expected until some time towards 2020.

Mixed feelings?

That's a long time away, but already some Indonesians aren't thrilled with the idea.

Ipan, a 23-year-old hawker from Sukabumi who sells some of Indonesia's best-loved dishes, such as gado-gado (Indonesian salad with peanut sauce), to office workers in the centre of the financial district, has mixed feelings.

He charges 8,240 rupiah for one plate of gado-gado.

On a really good day, Ipan says he can make up to 240,000 rupiah.

"Yes, I guess it would make it simpler if we didn't have to lug around so many notes of money all the time. Maybe it would make us less vulnerable to thieves as well," he tells the BBC.

"But I like the feeling of having thousands of rupiah in my pocket. At least it makes me feel rich!"

For some Indonesians, the "new rupiah" may not be so welcome after all.

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