THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT of the Honduran monetary system has been largely an outgrowth of changing economic circumstances and inelastic monetary legislation.1 The system has not been used as an instrument to promote economic development, and there has been no coordination of fiscal and monetary policy. The reforms of 1950, which include the creation of a Central Bank, indicate, however, that Honduras is now likely to attempt to use fiscal and monetary policy more actively to assist the growth of the national economy.


THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT of the Honduran monetary system has been largely an outgrowth of changing economic circumstances and inelastic monetary legislation.1 The system has not been used as an instrument to promote economic development, and there has been no coordination of fiscal and monetary policy. The reforms of 1950, which include the creation of a Central Bank, indicate, however, that Honduras is now likely to attempt to use fiscal and monetary policy more actively to assist the growth of the national economy.

THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT of the Honduran monetary system has been largely an outgrowth of changing economic circumstances and inelastic monetary legislation.1 The system has not been used as an instrument to promote economic development, and there has been no coordination of fiscal and monetary policy. The reforms of 1950, which include the creation of a Central Bank, indicate, however, that Honduras is now likely to attempt to use fiscal and monetary policy more actively to assist the growth of the national economy.

The Currency System

Dual monetary standard, 1918-31

Until June 30, 1950 the linking of the monetary unit to the U.S. dollar at the rate of two pesos (also known as soles) for one dollar, by Executive Decree No. 59 of August 8, 1918, constituted the basis of Honduras’ monetary system. This stabilizing action was precipitated by the rise in the world price of silver, which resulted in the bullion value of the Honduran silver peso rising from an average of $0.492 in 1916 to $0.644 in 1917 and $0.709 in 1918, although the average exchange rate in New York rose only from $0.386 in 1916 to $0.456 in 1917 and $0.498 in 1918. Despite the fact that the export of silver coins was prohibited in April 1916, the bulk of the Honduran silver was hoarded or exported, and it was replaced by an inflow of foreign currency which had always circulated freely within the country. The legal provisions relating to minimum reserves against the note2 and deposit liabilities of the two commercial banks, the Banco Atlántida and the Banco de Honduras, were interpreted as requiring the holding of coin of legal tender within the country; with the disappearance of the silver pesos the banks could not maintain these reserves and meet their note and deposit liabilities in national silver currency. It became necessary to protect them by giving legal tender status to U.S. currency, which was done by Decree No. 59. Table 1 illustrates the changes which took place at this time in the banks’ holdings of national and U.S. currency.

Table 1.

Cash on Hand of Banco Atlántida, 1918–201

(In thousands of pesos)2

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Similar information is not available for the other commercial bank, the Banco de Honduras.

For June 1918, 2.5 pesos = US$1; thereafter, 2 pesos = US$1.

The disparity between the bullion and the exchange value of the peso caused some of the public to feel cheated, especially since the silver coins which remained in the banks were exported as bullion, and the profits shared equally by the two banks and the Government. For a time the dollar circulated at a discount against the peso, but in general the need for a medium of exchange made U.S. currency acceptable at the new parity for any previously incurred silver obligations.

U.S. currency continued during the twenties to be the principal medium of circulation, although the dual standard persisted. Both Honduran bank notes and foreign money circulated side by side. Not all the silver coins had been melted down and sold as ingots, since with the rise in the price of silver there was some shift in hoarding habits from gold to silver, and when the price of silver dropped sharply late in 1920, some of the old silver coins began to reappear. In 1921, a bill was introduced demonetizing the old silver coins and prohibiting further imports of them;3 but as a result of pressure brought to bear on the Government by large hoarders of silver coins, the law was never passed, and silver coins were made acceptable at par (two pesos per dollar). The discussion in Congress, meanwhile, had forced silver coins to a 20 per cent discount. To restore their value, the Government indicated that the customs houses would receive them at par. Since this caused the greater part of its revenue to be paid in silver, the Government modified its position by decreeing in March 1921 that only half of the customs duties would be acceptable in silver money, which was then to be demonetized. The practice of demonetization was soon abandoned, however, because of the heavy losses involved. The high profits resulting from the import of foreign silver coins brought about illegal imports, though the amounts were never substantial. The composition of the currency in circulation in the 1920 decade, according to statistics of bank holdings of cash, was two thirds U.S. currency and one third silver currency. The two commercial banks, in addition, kept in circulation roughly $350,000 of their own notes, the volume remaining practically constant throughout this period.

A new currency, 1981-43

In 1931, a new currency, the lempira, was introduced. Its name was chosen in honor of an Honduran national hero, an Indian who had been killed by the Conquistadores as he fought to prevent the enslavement of his people. A new currency had been contemplated as far back as 1926, when Congress passed a monetary law (Decree No. 102 of April 3, 1926) providing for the coinage of both gold and silver lempira pieces. This law, however, did not become effective until 1931, when by a supplementary decree (Decree No. 114 of March 9, 1931) a loan was contracted4 to cover the expenses of coinage. By that year the position of the banks was becoming the reverse of what it had been in 1919-20. They could meet their internal obligations in silver, but not in dollars; consequently, it became necessary during the thirties for the state to decree that dollar obligations could be paid off in national currency at the rate of two lempiras to one U.S. dollar.

Decree No. 114 also provided that the new currency was to be backed by an Exchange Fund, consisting of gold holdings and exchange deposits abroad in an amount equal to at least 50 per cent of the monetary circulation. The Exchange Fund was created from the profits obtained from the conversion of the currency,5 and until June 30, 1950 was augmented by a 10 per cent surcharge on all import duties. Not until August 1948, however, was the Fund large enough to provide the desired guarantee of a reserve of 50 per cent or more against the lempira circulation.

Almost all the coinage of the lempira currency took place between 1931 and 1937 (Table 2). Most of it was of silver, 0.900 fine, and no gold coins were ever minted. The introduction of the lempira into circulation between 1931 and 1936 was orderly, averaging roughly a million lempiras annually and properly meeting the monetary needs of the country. During the same period the commercial banks’ issue of notes doubled from 1 million to 2 million lempiras. In 1937, when coins to the value of 5 million lempiras were already in existence, 4.5 million additional lempiras were coined, and sold to the banking system for dollar exchange destined for the Exchange Fund. The reasons for this action are not clear, though seigniorage profits to the Government may have been the motive. Certainly, the introduction of such a large supply was not dictated by the country’s monetary requirements. The unavoidable result was that the excess coins accumulated in the banks; during 1937 their holdings of lempira currency tripled from 2.2 million to 6.4 million, and their exchange holdings were depleted. This overabundance of bank lempira holdings continued until the 1940-43 period, when a strongly active balance of payments caused heavy demands for currency by the public, lempira coins in circulation increasing by more than 2 million between 1940 and June 1943, while bank notes rose 0.6 million (Table 3).

Table 2.

Lempira Coinage, 1931–49

(In thousands of lempiras)

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0.900 fine, 12.5 grams weight per lempira.

25 per cent nickel, 75 per cent copper.

95 per cent copper, 5 per cent zinc and tin.

Table 3.

Money Supply of Honduras, 1936–50

(In thousands of lempiras)

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Data for 1936-Dec. 1942 are estimated; thereafter they are reported by the Exchange Control Commission. It is estimated, however, that clandestine exports of dollars may amount to as much as 25 per cent of the U.S. currency now reported to be in circulation. No adjustment has been made for this probable error.

Including official deposits.

Return to dollar circulation, 1943-49

The scarcity of currency that began early in 1943 can be attributed on the demand side to unusually heavy dollar expenditures by the U.S. Government on the Pan-American Highway and by the fruit companies; the banks could not purchase the several million dollars of exchange offered in connection with these projects. On the supply side, on the other hand, more than 4 million lempiras in national currency were, in fact, immobilized in the vaults of the banks (Table 4), where they were required as legal reserves. Article 18 of the Banking Law of March 13, 1937 decreed that “Every bank .... will maintain, as a guarantee for its sight and demand deposits, 25 per cent of the total of said deposits in coined legal tender of the country or in gold bars, or both, and 15 per cent of its time deposits in the same manner.” This legislation was also interpreted as requiring the 50 per cent reserve obligation which the banks had to observe against their own note issues to be satisfied in the same way. In other words, foreign exchange did not constitute legal reserves, so that the banks were obliged to rely on the national silver lempiras to meet all their reserve requirements.6 Consequently, once the banks had released all their excess reserves of national currency, they were unable to expand either their deposits or their note issue.

Table 4.

Commercial Bank Monetary Reserves, 1936–50

(In thousands of lempiras)

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Until March 1937 all U.S. currency was considered legal reserve. Between June 1937 and March 1943, U.S. currency had no legal circulation status. After 1943, only U.S. coins were accepted as legal circulation media, though their legal tender status for reserve purposes was questionable until July 1, 1950.

The right of note issue, against which the banks formerly had to maintain a reserve of 50 per cent, was transferred to the Central Bank on June 30, 1950. The reserves of 25 per cent against sight deposits and 15 per cent against time deposits were maintained at the same level as before the foundation of the Central Bank.

Including deposits with the Central Bank.

As the offers of foreign exchange poured in, the banks approached the Government for permission to release some of their lempira reserves and substitute foreign exchange for it.7 This proposal was not to the Government’s liking, and nothing came of it. A plan to enable the Exchange Control Commission to issue paper money, the liability for which might be assumed by a central bank when created, was similarly shelved by the Government. The Government, on the other hand, objected to the minting of more lempiras, first because of the difficulty of having the job done quickly in wartime, and secondly because it was felt that the pressing need for additional currency was temporary—official sources thinking that the outstanding coinage was more than ample to satisfy postwar monetary needs.

To meet the immediate crisis, the Government decided (by Executive Decree No. 59 of March 18, 1943) to permit the importation and temporary circulation of $1.5 million of U.S. fifty- and ten-cent pieces, these being of exactly the same weight and fineness as the one lempira and 20 centavo coins. The first imports of these coins took place in April 1943, and by June the total amount involved exceeded 2.2 million lempiras. The U.S. currency met with immediate acceptance. The demand for additional currency continued strong, as evidenced by Executive Decree No. 66 of August 10, 1943, whereby the volume of permissible imports of U.S. currency was expanded to $3 million. As time went on, additional decrees were issued permitting more and more imports of U.S. coins of 50-, 25-, 10-, 5-, and 1-cent denominations, so that by June 1950 the total amount of U.S. currency acquired, as reported by the Exchange Control Commission, exceeded 15.7 million lempiras (US$7.9 million). Imports of U.S. notes were never authorized, and their circulation was prohibited.8 No efforts were made to meet the need for one-centavo pieces and, consequently, they quickly disappeared from circulation, and none were to be found during the war. Near the Salvadoran border, the Salvadoran centavo, even though of 20 per cent less value than the lempira coin, has been generally accepted in transactions where small change is needed.

In spite of the imports of U.S. coins, a general scarcity of small fractional coins persisted. This is said to have resulted from the general hoarding of the small coins, the standard of living being such that the bulk of the Honduran population could accumulate savings only in this form. To meet this scarcity, the Government, for the first time since 1939, authorized the coinage during 1949 of fractional coins to the value of 200,000 lempiras: 4 million one-centavo copper pieces, 3 million two-centavo copper pieces, and 2 million five-centavo nickel pieces.

Monetary reform of 1950

Early in 1950 Honduras completely revised its monetary, exchange, and banking system by the passage of a monetary law, a banking law, and a law establishing a Central Bank. This legislation took effect with the opening of the Central Bank on July 1, 1950. It linked the Honduran currency directly to gold, the gold content of the lempira being prescribed as 0.444 335 grams of pure gold. Although Honduras had devalued its currency simultaneously with the devaluation of the U.S. dollar in 1934, the gold content of its currency had never been redefined, and until the monetary reform of 1950, official gold holdings were still carried at the value of $20.67 per ounce.

The most striking change which these reforms made in the monetary system is that the right of unlimited note issue has been granted to the Central Bank—unlimited in the sense that no legal ratio has been established between the issue and the Central Bank’s international reserve holdings. The issue power of the private banks was transferred to the Central Bank. By contracts revising the concessions under which these banks had been operating, their total note issue obligations of 3.2 million lempiras were transferred to the Central Bank. As an offset to these obligations the 50 per cent coin reserve which had been maintained against the private banks’ note issue was also transferred to the Central Bank (the payment was actually made in U.S. coins, lempira coins, and dollar drafts); and for the other 50 per cent of the note issue, the private banks are to pay the Central Bank in six semiannual installments during the next three years. The private banks are to be compensated for the loss of their issue privileges by being allowed credit facilities up to 50 per cent of their issue obligations on June 28, 1950, at an interest rate of 3/8 per cent. The new contract with the private banks has been interpreted, however, to mean that the Central Bank may exercise its discretion in deciding whether these facilities are to be made available.

The introduction of Central Bank notes in sufficient quantities to enable the public to choose freely the kind of currency held has made possible the elimination of the premium markets in bank notes which had formerly existed. Because of poor means of communications, travellers prefer to carry paper money rather than the heavy and cumbersome metallic currency, and demand for paper currency on the north coast had sometimes been strong enough to produce a premium of 5 to 10 per cent on bank notes. As an adequate volume of Central Bank notes has been put into circulation, these anomalies have disappeared.

The responsibility for coinage has also been shifted to the Central Bank, the Government paying in part for the obligations of the coin issue (which amounted to 9.7 million lempiras on June 30, 1950), by transferring to the Central Bank the Exchange Fund, in which 5.4 million lempiras had accumulated. The remainder has been paid for by a 50-year non-interest-bearing bond, to be amortized by the proceeds from the sale of the silver bullion content of the coins after they have been demonetized. The value of that silver was estimated on June 30, 1950, at the price of 72 centavos per ounce, to be more than 5 million lempiras.

Article 3 of the new Monetary Law decrees that any and all obligations payable in currency within the territory of the Republic shall be liquidated in lempiras, and the Central Bank has the responsibility of retiring from circulation in the shortest time possible any foreign money in circulation at the time of its establishment. In the first three months of operations, the Central Bank was able to retire roughly 4.5 million lempiras in U.S. currency, Salvadoran colones, and Guatemalan quetzales—colones and quetzales having previously been almost the sole circulating media in the frontier states of Honduras—and the volume of the lempira currency in circulation rapidly approached that of the U.S. currency (Table 3). While no legal time limit has been placed on the conversion of foreign currency into lempiras, the process is expected to be practically completed during 1951. For the first time in its history, Honduras will then have nationalized its currency.

Exchange System

Since the early thirties, the curb or free market rate of the Honduran currency has fluctuated close to the rate of two pesos or two lempiras to the dollar, the rate at which the currency has been legally tied to the U.S. dollar since 1918. The only exception was in the late thirties, when the curb rate rose to a high of 2.25. During and since the war, the curb rate has sometimes been even a little below the official selling rate, because of the plentiful supply of exchange. The structure of exchange rates in Honduras prior to July 1, 1950 was as follows:

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The selling rates included a one half of one per cent (1 centavo per dollar) tax on all purchases of foreign exchange. The proceeds of this tax, in effect since 1934, have been set aside in an “Accumulative Fund,” created to provide capital for a State Agricultural Bank. With the 1.5 million lempiras thus made available, the Agricultural Bank began operations on July 1, 1950. The different selling rates for Tegucigalpa, the capital city, and the north coast were established by the Exchange Control Commission soon after it came into existence in 1934. The differential was said to be explained by the high cost involved in shipping national currency from the interior of the country, where it tends to accumulate, to the north coast, where the major portion of exchange offerings takes place; however, this was not true, since in most cases the cost of shipping currency was borne by the United Fruit Company.

The two per cent spread between the buying and selling rates led in recent years to the creation of an unusual kind of illegal exchange market in Honduras, with a free market rate lower than the official selling rate. This is explained by the fact that exchange restrictions were largely nominal, and the exchange market virtually free, whereas the wide spread between the official buying and selling rates made it profitable to deal outside the official market. Such dealings were facilitated by a feature of the exchange legislation which permitted exporters to retain exchange which they intended to use for their own imports. Exporters might take advantage of this to import not only for their own account, but also for the account of others, and in certain cases they might sell their exchange illegally to an importer at a rate which enabled both the purchaser and the seller to reap a one-half to one per cent profit on the transaction. The available evidence suggests, however, that only a small fraction of total exchange receipts was so traded.

Though Honduras did not suffer from serious exchange shortages during the depression years, exchange control was established in 1934, following the pattern of other Latin American countries. An Exchange Control Commission was set up which was authorized to fix the buying and selling rates, regulate all purchases and sales of foreign exchange, especially those relating to the transfer of capital, require the declaration of all exchange holdings, and allocate exchange quotas to importers once a scarcity developed. The Exchange Control Commission was also charged with the administration of the Exchange Fund (Fondo de Cambio), which had been created in 1931 to support the domestic currency. This Fund was built up primarily from a surtax of 10 per cent of all import duties, and secondly from the seigniorage profits arising from the introduction of the lempira. As of June 1950, the Fund amounted to 6 million lempiras, mostly in dollar holdings in the United States, and representing more than 60 per cent backing of the lempira coins in circulation or in the banks.

The only period during which exchange can be said to have been restricted was between 1937 and 1941. The Exchange Control Commission during that period rationed exchange on the basis of a monthly quota system, allocations being determined on an estimated ratio of the amounts required by each importer to the total amount of exchange available. During this period exchange for certain luxury items (automobiles, radios, refrigerators, etc.) was also denied. By 1950, however, for all practical purposes, the exchange control system in effect performed only the functions of a statistics-gathering agency.

On July 1, 1950 Honduras eliminated its exchange control system and unified its rate structure. The buying rate was maintained at two lempiras to one U.S. dollar, and a uniform selling rate of 2.02 lempiras to one U.S. dollar was established throughout the Republic. At the same time Honduras officially accepted the obligations of Article VIII, Sections 2, 3, and 4, of the Articles of Agreement of the International Monetary Fund, and thus became one of the few countries whose currency is freely convertible.

The action taken by the Honduran authorities has already had a salutary effect upon the exchange system. First, as a consequence of the narrowing of the spread between the buying and the selling rates, the curb market has, for all practical purposes, been eliminated, and the volume of exchange operations carried out through the banking system has been correspondingly expanded, increasing during the third quarter of 1950 by 40 per cent, compared with the previous quarter. Secondly, as all payments within the Republic must now be made in national currency, several foreign currencies (U.S. bank notes, Salvadoran colones, Guatemalan quetzales) have been retired from circulation. These foreign monies, as well as the U.S. metal currency now being retired from circulation, will, as they are exported, strengthen the official exchange holdings of Honduras. That exchange control is not needed in Honduras has been amply proved by the fact that, during the first three months since its elimination, the international reserves of the country showed a continued tendency to rise (Table 5).

Table 5.

International Reserves of Honduras, 1937–50

(In thousands of U.S. dollars)

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Data for December 1943 and subsequent dates represent official figures of imports and exports of currency. It is estimated that clandestine exports of dollars may account for about 25 per cent of the U.S. currency now reported to be in circulation.


Mr. Vinelli, economist in the Latin American Division (North), was educated at the University of Michigan. He was formerly a member of the staff of the Federal Reserve Board, and has worked as security and investment account analyst in private banking. He helped draft the Honduran monetary and banking legislation of 1950, and assisted in the establishment and early operations of the Central Bank and the National Development Bank of Honduras.


For an account of the early monetary history of Honduras, see J. Parke Young, Central American Currency and Finance (Princeton University Press, 1925), pp. 91-118.


The banks had the right to issue notes to an amount not exceeding 185 per cent of their paid-in capital excluding reserves. The amount of these notes in circulation was, however, only a small part of the total money supply.


In addition to the Honduran silver peso, Guatemalan, Mexican, Peruvian, Chilean, and other silver coins also circulated legally.


Half of the loan was underwritten by the two Honduran commercial banks, and the other half was made by the Canal Bank and Trust Co. of New Orleans, with the guarantees of both the United and the Standard Fruit Companies.


The first portion of these profits, however, was used toward the repayment of the contracted borrowing to cover the cost of coinage.


The 1937 banking law specified that reserves must be maintained in the vaults of the banks. This might be the reason why the banks never used gold as reserves. Aside from the heavy cost of importing it, they probably felt much safer maintaining the cumbersome lempira coins in their vaults, rather than the valuable gold bars.


A similar recommendation was made by a U.S. Technical Financial Mission to Honduras in July 1943.


Many UJ3. bank notes were introduced into Honduras, however, by U.S. ships in north coast ports, and in July 1950 the banks were authorized to purchase these notes at parity.