The history of leu

The leu, plural: lei; ISO 4217 code RON; numeric code 946) is the currency of Romania. It is subdivided into 100 bani (singular: ban). Romania joined the European Union on 1 January 2007 and it is expected to adopt the euro in 2014.

During the 17th century, Dutch daalder (Romanian: taler) bearing a lion (leeuwendaalder) circulated in the Romanian principalities; they were often called lei (lions). The name was kept as a generic term for money, and became the official name of the national currency in 1867 after several attempts to impose a more nationalist name. The Moldavian leu, the Bulgarian lev and the Albanian lek have the same etymology. The subdivision of leu is the ban, pl. bani, meaning both "money" and "coin".

On April 22, 1867, a bimetallic currency was adopted, with the leu equal to 5 grams of 83.5% silver or 0.29032 grams of gold. In 1889, Romania joined the Latin Monetary Union and adopted a gold standard. Silver coins were legal tender only up to 50 lei. All taxes and customs dues were to be paid in gold and, owing to the small quantities issued from the Romanian mint, foreign gold coins were current, especially French 20-franc pieces (equal at par to 20 lei), Turkish gold lire (22.70), old Russian imperials (20.60) and British sovereigns (25.22).

Romania left the gold standard in 1914 and the leu's value fell. The exchange rate was pegged at 167.20 lei = 1 U.S. Dollar on February 7, 1929, 135.95 lei on November 5, 1936, 204.29 lei on May 18, 1940, and 187.48 Lei on March 31, 1941. During Romania's World War II alliance with Nazi Germany, the leu was pegged to the Reichsmark at a rate of 49.50 lei = 1 Reichsmark, falling to 59.5 lei in April 1941. During Soviet occupation, the exchange rate was 1 rubla = 100 lei. After the war, the value of the currency fell dramatically.

On August 15, 1947, a revaluation took place, with a new leu replacing the old one at a rate of 20,000 old lei = 1 new leu. This revaluation, called a monetary reform or stabilisation measure, was carried out by the Communist authorities with absolutely no advance warning and without the possibility to exchange more than a fixed amount of money for the new currency. This was done in order to depose the former middle and upper classes of their last assets, after nationalization, to prepare for collectivization and to finalize the installation of communism. At the time of its introduction, 150 new lei equalled 1 U.S. dollar.

On January 28, 1952, another new leu was introduced. Unlike the previous revaluation, different rates were employed for different kinds of exchange (cash, bank deposits, debts etc) and different amounts. These rates ranged from 20 to 400 "old lei" for 1 "new" leu. Again, no advance warning was given before the reform took place. During the communist era, the gold standard was dropped after requiring severe adjustments to prevent inflation following the revaluations. After the gold standard was dropped, the leu lost convertibility and, between 1970 and 1989, the official exchange rate was fixed by the government through law. This exchange rate was used by the government to calculate the value of foreign trade, but foreign currency was not available to be bought and sold by private individuals. Owning or attempting to buy or sell foreign currency was a criminal offence, punishable with a prison sentence that could go up to 10 years (depending on the amount of foreign currency found under one's possession). International trade was therefore considered as part of another economic circuit than domestic trade, and given greater priority. This inflexibility and the existence of surplus money due to constant economic decline in the 1980s, mixed with the need for more foreign currency and the refusal of the very unpopular Ceauşescu regime to accept inflation as a phenomenon in order to attain convertibility, led to one of the greatest supply side crises in Romanian history, culminating with the introduction of food rationing starting 1986/87, and partly triggering the downfall of communism.

In the 1990s, after the downfall of communism, inflation ran high due to reform failures, the legalization of owning foreign currency in 1990, and the bankrupt policies of the former communist era, reaching rates as high as 300% per year in 1993. By September 2003, one euro was exchanged for more than 40,000 lei, this being its peak value. Following a number of successful monetary policies in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the situation became gradually more stable, with one digit inflation in 2005. The Romanian leu briefly held the dubious distinction of being the world's least valued currency unit, from January (when the Turkish lira dropped six zeros) to July 2005. However, the 1,000,000 lei bill was not the highest Romanian denomination ever. This distinction belongs to the 5 million lei bill from 1947. On 1 July 2005, the leu was revalued at the rate of 10,000 "old" lei (ROL) for one "new" leu (RON), thus psychologically bringing the purchasing power of the leu back in line with those of other major Western currencies. The term chosen for the action was "denominare", similar to the English "denomination", to signify not a conversion, but rather a total reinvention.