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Zimbabwe checks its bank balance, finds only $217

Desmond Kwande / AFP/Getty Images

Crippling inflation in Zimbabwe led the government to issue a 100 trillion-dollar note in 2009, leading to reforms that have tamed the cost of living but left the country with almost no cash.

Before you get depressed about the state of your finances, spare a thought for the nation of Zimbabwe, which as of Tuesday had exactly $217 in the bank.

That's 217 dollars, not $217 million or $217 billion.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti said Tuesday that that was all that was left in the country's public accounts after it paid its civil servants last week, the South African Press Association reported. He told reporters in the capital, Harare, that some of them were probably better off than the state.

After a decade of inflation hit 500 billion percent in 2008 — leading to the issuance of 100 trillion-dollar bills in Zimbabwean currency — the country switched to the U.S. dollar and formed a coalition government in 2009, which the International Monetary Fund credited in September with taming inflation and stabilizing the economy.

But the debt the country built up during those years of nationalist rule by President Robert Mugabe left it with a minimal tax base and few cash reserves, the IMF said, leaving Zimbabwe vulnerable to economic "shocks."

One of those would appear to be the regular wage bill for civil servants — which accounts for 73 percent of the national budget.

Biti, an opposition member of Mugabe's coalition, said the lack of cash threatened elections that are expected some time after a March referendum on a new constitution.

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"The government finances are in a paralysis state at the present moment," he said, adding that the country might have to seek donations to stay afloat.

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