SA Economy

The market and the bookmakers inform us about the ANC succession battle (Update)

November 23rd, 2017 by Brian Kantor

Below follows an update on this piece from Monday. 

The immediate outlook for the economy depends on who governs SA after December 2017. Will it be the Zuma faction or some other ANC coalition calling the shots? That is the essential question for the economic outlook and the value of the financial claims on it.  The market in SA assets has made its preferences for much less of President Zuma very clear. RSA risk premiums rise and fall as the expected Zuma influence on policy gains or loses momentum.

On Thursday and Friday last week the market suddenly came to reverse recently very unfavourable trends to register less SA risk. The rand strengthened, not only against the USD, but more meaningfully, also gained against other EM exchange rates.[1] Furthermore not only did RSA bond yields decline late last week – they declined relative to benchmark US yields. Still less SA risk has been registered this week in the foreign exchange markets. The ratio of the USD/ZAR to the USD EM basket (Jan 1st 2017=1) had moved out to 1.104 on the 13th November is 1.065 a relative SA gain of 3.6%

The behaviour of these foreign exchange indicators in 2017 is shown in figure 1 below. As may be seen, despite this recent improvement in sentiment, 2017 has not been a good year for the ZAR. The USD/ZAR weakened relative to its EM peers when Finance Minister Gordhan, in public dispute with the President over spending plans, was sacked in March 2017. It also suffered in response to the Budget statement presented by his successor, Milusi Gigaba in late October, as may also be seen.

The budget disappointment was perhaps not in the details about the revenue shortfall  – this was well telegraphed – but that no revised plan to address the widening fiscal deficit was offered. The concern was presumably that Zuma and his cohort would soon announce more government spending, on nuclear power or students, rather than less,  regardless of the fiscal constraints.

Fig.1; The USD/ZAR and the USD/EM exchange rate basket in 2017. Daily Data January 1st=100 to November , 23rd  OR ratio (LHS) =1

b1Source; Bloomberg and Investec Wealth and Investment

Though perhaps a little longer perspective on SA risk indicators is called for, as is provided in figure 2 below. There it may be seen that the ratio of USD/ZAR exchange rate to the USD/EM currency basket, weakened significantly in December 2015, when Finance Minister Nene was so surprisingly sacked. However as may be seen in the figure, the rand in a relative and absolute sense did very much better in 2016. Perhaps because the decision Zuma made under pressure from colleagues and the business community to immediately reappoint Pravin Gordhan, indicated less rather than more power to the President. A sense perhaps that the market had gained of Zuma overreach and a degree of vulnerability.   Just how vulnerable is President Zuma remains to be determined- hence market volatility.

Fig 2; The ratio of the USD.ZAR to the USD/EM currency basket (January 2017=1) Daily Data

b2Source; Bloomberg and Investec Wealth and Investment

The indicators derived from the Bond market make the same statements about SA risk. As shown in figure 3 below the spread between RSA and USA government bond yields, the so called interest rate carry that reveals the expected depreciation of the USD/ZAR exchange rate, widened sharply as the rand weakened in late 2015. They then narrowed through much of 2016, stabilized in 2017 until the Budget disappointment pushed them higher. The difference however between RSA rand bond yields however has widened gain to 7.2% p.a. and is back to levels recorded on the 14th November. The default risk premium attached to five year RSA dollar denominated bonds though has declined further from 208 b.p on the 14th November to 187 b.p on the 23rd November

In figure 4 it may also be seen how the RSA sovereign risk premium has behaved in 2017. Sovereign risks are revealed by the spread between the yield on a USD denominated RSA (Yankee)  Bond and its US equivalent. As may be seen this spread has been variable in 2017 – that it increased by 40 b.p. in October – and then declined sharply in the week ending on November 17th.  These spreads indicate that SA debt is already being accorded Junk Status by the market place, ahead of any such ruling by the rating agencies. The spread on the lowest Investment Grade debt would be of the order of 1.6%.

In figure 5 we show the interest carry- the rate at which the USD/ZAR is expected to weaken over the next ten years and inflation expectations. These are measured as the spread between a vanilla bond that carries inflation risk and an inflation linker of the same duration that avoids inflation risk. As may be seen more inflation expected is strongly connected to the rate at which the ZAR is expected to weaken. It should be recognized that the weaker the rand the more it is expected to weaken further. It will take a stronger rand to reduce inflation expected- a welcome development that is beyond the influence of interest rates themselves.

Fig.3; The USD/ZAR and the Interest Rate Spreads. Daily Data 2015 to November 23, 2017

b3Source; Bloomberg and Investec Wealth and Investment

Fig.4; The RSA sovereign risk premium and the interest carry. Daily Data 2017.

b4Source; Bloomberg and Investec Wealth and Investment

Fig.5: The interest rate carry and inflation compensation in the RSA bond market. Daily Data 2017.

b5

 

The market place, as well as the bookmakers, will continuously update the odds of one or other candidate for the Presidency of the ANC ( now very probably) being determined in December 2017.  The odds offered by Sportingbet at 13h00 on November 20, 2017 are shown in the Table below. (www.sportingbet.co.za ) They have not changed since- indicating perhaps a lack of betting activity. These odds imply a 40% chance of Dlamini-Zuma winning the nomination and a 45% chance for CR. As they say in racing circles- the favourite does not always win- but don’t bet against it.

Lower South African risks and the stronger rand and lower interest and inflation rates associated with rand strength are good for the economy and all the businesses and their stakeholders dependent on the economy. One prediction can be made with some degree of conviction. That is without less SA risk any cyclical recovery in the SA economy is unlikely.

b6

 

 

Additional Figures

Equity performance in 2017 to November 17th Daily Data

b7

Credit Default Swap Spreads over US Treasuries 5 year;  Daily Data 2015-2017

b8

Credit Default Swaps over US Treasuries, 5 year Daily Data to November 17th 2017.

b9

[1] Our construct for Emerging Market exchange rates that exclude the ZAR  is an equally weighted nine currency basket of the Turkish Lire, Russian Ruble, Hungarian Forint, Brazilian Real, Mexican, Chilian and Philippine Pesos, Indian Rupee and Malaysian Ringit

 

SA Economy

The market tells us about the ANC succession battle

November 22nd, 2017 by Brian Kantor

 The outlook for the SA economy depends on who governs after December 2017. Will it be the Zuma faction or some other ANC coalition calling the shots? That is the essential question for the economy and the value of the financial claims on it.  The market in SA assets has made its preferences for much less of President Zuma very clear. RSA risk premiums rise and fall as the expected Zuma influence on policy gains or loses momentum.

On Thursday and Friday last week the market registered less SA risk as the rand strengthened, not only against the USD, but more meaningfully the rand also gained against other EM exchange rates.[1] Furthermore not only did RSA bond yields decline late last week – they declined relative to benchmark US yields. The political developments that actually moved the market are however not that obvious.

The behaviour of these indicators in 2017 is shown in figure 1 below. As may be seen 2017, despite this recent improvement in sentiment, has not been a good year for the ZAR. It weakened relative to its EM peers when highly respected Finance Minister Gordhan was also sacked in March. It also suffered in response to the Budget statement of his successor in late October, as may also be seen.

The budget disappointment was perhaps not in the details about the revenue shortfall  – that were well telegraphed – but that no revised plan to address the widening fiscal deficit was offered. The concern was presumably that Zuma and his cohorts would soon announce more rather than less government spending regardless of the fiscal constraints.

 

Fig.1; The USD/ZAR and the USD/EM exchange rate basket in 2017. Daily Data January 1st=100 or ratio (LHS) =1

 

 

a1



Source; Bloomberg and Investec Wealth and Investment

 

Though perhaps a little longer perspective on SA risk indicators is called for, as is provided in figure 2 below. There it may be seen that the ratio of USD/ZAR exchange rate to the USD/EM currency basket, weakened significantly in December 2015, when Finance Minister Nene was so surprisingly and ignominiously sacked. However as may be seen in the figure, the rand in a relative and absolute sense did very much better in 2016. Perhaps because the decision Zuma made under pressure from colleagues and the business community to immediately reappoint Pravin Gordhan, indicated less rather than more power to the President. A sense perhaps that the market had gained of Zuma overreach and a degree of vulnerability.   Just how vulnerable remains to be determined- hence market volatility.

Fig 2; The ratio of the USD.ZAR to the USD/EM currency basket (January 2017=1) Daily Data

a2Source; Bloomberg and Investec Wealth and Investment

 

The indicators derived from the Bond market make the same statements about SA risk. As shown in figure 3 below the spread between RSA and USA government bond yields, the so called interest rate carry that reveals the expected depreciation of the USD/ZAR exchange rate widened sharply as the rand weakened in late 2015. They then narrowed through much of 2016, stabilized in 2017 until the Budget disappointment pushed them higher. In figure 4 it may also be seen how the RSA sovereign risk premium has behaved in 2017. Sovereign risks are revealed by the spread between the yield on a USD denominated RSA (Yankee)  Bond and its US equivalent. As may be seen this spread has been variable in 2017 – that it increased by 40 b.p. in October – and then declined sharply in the week ending on November 17th.  These spreads indicate that SA debt is already being accorded Junk Status by the market place, ahead of any such ruling by the rating agencies. The spread on the lowest Investment Grade debt would be of the order of 1.6%.

In figure 5 we show the interest carry- the rate at which the USD/ZAR is expected to weaken over the next ten years and inflation expectations. These are measured as the spread between a vanilla bond that carries inflation risk and an inflation linker of the same duration that avoids inflation risk. As may be seen more inflation expected is strongly connected to the rate at which the ZAR is expected to weaken. It should be recognized that the weaker the rand the more it is expected to weaken further. It will take a stronger rand to reduce inflation expected- a welcome development that is beyond the influence of interest rates themselves.

 

Fig.3; The USD/ZAR and the Interest Rate Spreads. Daily Data 2015-2017

a3Source; Bloomberg and Investec Wealth and Investment
Fig.4; The RSA sovereign risk premium and the interest carry. Daily Data 2017.

a4Source; Bloomberg and Investec Wealth and Investment 

Fig.5: The interest rate carry and inflation compensation in the RSA bond market. Daily Data 2017.

a5

The market place, as well as the bookmakers, will continuously update the odds of one or other candidate for the Presidency of the ANC ( probably) being determined in December 2017.  The odds offered by Sportingbet at 13h00 on November 20, 2017 are shown in the Table below. (www.sportingbet.co.za ) As they say in racing circles- the favourite does not always win- but don’t bet against it.

Lower South African risks and the stronger rand and lower interest and inflation rates associated with rand strength are good for the economy and all the businesses and their stakeholders dependent on the economy. One prediction can be made with some degree of conviction. That is without less SA risk any cyclical recovery in the SA economy is unlikely.

a6

 

[1] Our construct for Emerging Market exchange rates that exclude the ZAR  is an equally weighted nine currency basket of the Turkish Lire, Russian Ruble, Hungarian Forint, Brazilian Real, Mexican, Chilian and Philippine Pesos, Indian Rupee and Malaysian Ringit

Global Financial Markets

A world of exchange rate volatility – tough on trade and central banks

November 13th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

SA is very open to international trade. The aggregate value of imports and exports in any year is equal to 50% of GDP. Yet all this great volume of trade across borders is subject to highly volatile exchange rates. This volatility adds considerable risks to exporters, importers and those who compete with imports and exports in the local market.

What matters for the operating margins of businesses is exchange rates adjusted for differences in inflation between trading partners. These are known as real exchange rates. An undervalued exchange rate will add to profit margins, while an overvalued one – should the exchange rate change by less than the differences in inflation – will depress margins.

When the offset is complete, or when what is gained or lost on the exchange rate is equal to the difference in inflation rates, purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates are said to hold. In such a case, the prices of common goods or services delivered in any market place will be about the same when expressed in any common currency. Real exchange rates above 100 indicate overvalued exchange rates while real exchange rates below 100 indicate the opposite: an undervalued or generally competitive exchange rate.

It is however changes in nominal exchange rates that are the predominant force behind changes in the real exchange rate. In SA and elsewhere, frequent shocks to the exchange rates lead the process and inflation rates follow.

However the SA experience with real exchange rate volatility is by no means unique. The trade-weighted real US dollar exchange rate has been even more variable than the real rand exchange rate. And those of Europe and the UK are similarly variable.

In figure 1 below we show the performance of the US dollar rate of exchange against its developed market peers (DXY). We also show the real dollar exchange rate against its major trading partners. The pattern has been a highly unstable and destabilising one for the global economy, which relies on the US dollar as a reserve currency and unit of account.

 

 

We compare below in figure 2 a variety of trade weighted real exchange rates for the period 1995- 2017. As may be seen, all these real exchange rates are highly variable. Not co-incidentally, the real trade-weighted rand moved in very much the opposite direction to the real US dollar. The real euro and real sterling have also been highly variable since 1995. A consistently overvalued, less competitive real sterling between 1996 and 2007 can be identified. More recently, with Brexit in sight, sterling has become much more competitive.

 

Moreover none of the real exchange rates considered above can pass a statistical test for mean reversion. The Chinese and Japanese real exchange rates trends shown below conspicuously do not revert to the theoretical PPP 100. The real yuan has had a distinct and persistently stronger trend (off what was a very undervalued base in the mid-90s) while the real yen moves persistently weaker off what was presumably a very overvalued base in 1995.

 

How should monetary policy react to exchange rate shocks?

This global nominal and real exchange rate volatility – as well as the lack of mean reversion to trade neutral purchasing power parity exchange rates – has greatly inconvenienced global trade. It has also greatly complicated the reactions of central banks.

We would argue the best approach central banks should adopt to exchange rate shocks is to ignore them. This is because such shocks are unpredictable and largely beyond their control. They have little to do with competitiveness in international trade and almost all to do with capital flows responding to changes in expected returns across different economies. If such exchange rate shocks are temporary – even perhaps rapidly reversible – the impact they have on inflation will be as temporary. They therefore will not be expected to permanently add to inflation and therefore will not add to expected (forecast) inflation.

It should be recognised that dollar strength and other currency weakness in response to persistent capital flows can persist for an extended period of time. Persistent US dollar strength – against its developed economy peer currencies and against most emerging market currencies – explains much of the nominal and real rand weakness and also emerging market currency weakness observed between 2014 and mid-2016. Ditto the higher inflation rates that followed.

But to react to exchange rate shocks as if they threatened permanently higher inflation is to make monetary policy hostage to the unpredictable US dollar exchange rate. Monetary policy in the emerging market world would do better to moderate rather than exaggerate the shocks to spending intentions and confidence that may emanate from the market in foreign exchange.

Unfortunately the SA Reserve Bank, from early 2014, added higher interest rates to the contractionary forces emanating from a weaker exchange rate. We regard this as an error of monetary policy that unhelpfully further reduced growth rates without any obvious reduction in inflation rates or inflation expected.

The implications of exchange rate volatility for investment portfolios

Monetary policy in the US understandably does not react to the exchange value of the dollar. Thus when investing abroad (investments that always carry extra risks given exchange rate volatility) a bias in favour of US-based investing seems appropriate. Or, in other words, the risks posed by a volatile real and nominal US dollar to monetary policy and real economic activity everywhere else are best hedged by investing in the US rather than in more macro policy error prone economies. 9 November 2017

SA Financial Markets

The Bond market anticipates Reserve Bank reactions to a higher oil price- more bad news for the SA economy.

November 7th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The bond market anticipates Reserve Bank reactions to a higher oil price – meaning more bad news for the SA economy.

The RSA bond market and the rand weakened on Friday: the yields on RSA bonds rose markedly across the yield curve. The RSA five-year yield added 22bps (0.22 percentage points) and the 10-year yield 24bps.

 

The spread between RSA yields and their equivalent US Treasury Bond yields (the carry) also widened by about the same number of basis points – indicating that not only did the rand weaken on the day but still more rand weakness was expected on the day.

The gap between RSA five-year and 10-year vanilla bonds and their inflation-linked alternatives also widened, indicating more SA inflation expected over the next five and 10 years, about two tenths of one per cent per annum more inflation expected over the next five and 10 years, with inflation now expected to average almost 7% over the next five and 10 years (see figure 3 below). The real yield on the inflation-linked five-year bond, at 2.43%, was unchanged on Friday, indicating that the higher nominal bond yields reflected a changed view of the outlook for inflation.

Further confirmation that it was inflation expected rather than real forces at work was that the sovereign risk spread was largely unchanged on the day. The extra yield offered on an RSA US dollar-denominated bond edged up only marginally, while the cost of a CDS swap that insures RSA debt against default, actually declined on the day (see below).

 

A large part of the rand weakness on Friday can be attributed to global rather than SA-specific forces at work, in the form of a degree of US dollar strength against both its peers (the euro et al) and against an Index of emerging market currencies that accords an 8.33% weight to the rand (see below).

 

Having identified more inflation expected behind the higher RSA bond yields and spreads, it remains the task to explain why inflation should have been expected to increase. Perhaps it has something to do with higher oil and metal prices. A combination of a higher oil price in US dollars and a weaker rand would be expected to add to inflationary pressures and depress domestic spending. The rand and US dollar price of a barrel of oil did spike higher on Friday. We can only hope that this supply side shock for inflation will be ignored by the Reserve Bank. Past performance alas makes it likely that the Reserve Bank would raise rather than leave interest rates alone in such circumstances. Perhaps this was also behind the spike in RSA interest rates across the yield curve. Short rates also rose on Friday, indicating an expectation that the Reserve Bank is more likely to increase the repo rate.

Our argument is not with the market but with the Reserve Bank that continues to treat supply side shocks to inflation as if they are permanent rather than temporary. Given all else that plagues the economy, such possible monetary policy reactions can make even the strongest still standing feel very weak. 7 November 2017

Fiscal Policy

An expensive Budget failure – for extra-budget reasons

October 31st, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The Budget statement and speech on Wednesday badly disappointed the market in the rand and in RSA bonds. Since the Budget statement, the rand has lost about 3.3% of its US dollar value and was nearly 4% weaker against other emerging market exchange rates. This indicates that rand weakness and additional SA specific risks are at work.

The government’s cost of raising funds for 10 years has risen by about 22 basis points (0.22 percentage points), while five year money has since become a quarter of a percent more expensive for the SA tax payer. The spread investors receive as compensation for the risk that SA may default on its US dollar-denominated debt has increased by approximately 13 basis points.

Given that SA, to the 2020/21 fiscal year, will have to raise about R1 trillion to fund the growing deficit and to roll over maturing debt, the Budget statement has been a very expensive failure for the SA taxpayer. Furthermore, by weakening the rand, widening the risks to our credit ratings and to the rand and by adding to the inflation rate, the prospects for faster economic growth have deteriorated.

Yet one has difficulty in understanding why the statement was so poorly received. The statement continues to commit the government to fiscal conservatism. That taxes collected were a very large R50bn less than estimated in the February Budget, was widely signaled, as was the breach of the spending ceilings incurred to keep SAA alive. Furthermore, the decision to increase the Budget deficit and the borrowing requirement, rather than raise tax rates, makes good sense in such dire circumstances.

The Treasury may be implicitly conceding that raising the income tax rates in February proved counterproductive. Higher tax rates have not increased revenues and have in all probability discouraged growth. Raising income tax rates in the near future may well have become less likely.

Strictly controlling government spending while selling government assets is the only way out of the debt and interest trap. But privatisation on any scale appears as unlikely after the Budget statement as it was before.

What then are the steps the SA government could immediately take that might raise confidence in the prospects for the economy, enough to encourage households to spend more of their incomes and for firms to add jobs and capacity to meet their extra demands? Confidence enough to lift growth rates closer to a highly feasible 3% rather than 1% a year?

What is essential is no less than a confidence boosting conviction that the SA government is capable of ridding the economy of those individuals who have gained destructive control of the commanding heights of the SA economy. It therefore takes more than a statement to improve the outlook for the SA economy and to escape the stagnation that makes sound budgeting so difficult. 27 October 2017

 

fig1

Monetary Policy

My Differences with the Reserve Bank – Redux

October 13th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The Monetary Policy Committee of the Reserve Bank decided not to offer relief to our hard pressed economy.

This window of opportunity to lower interest rates was provided by declining rates of inflation and less inflation expected. The conclusion is that if cutting rates was not opportune last Thursday 21st September, when would circumstances ever allow the Bank to lower interest rates?

Indeed circumstances have since have made lower interest rates less likely. They came this week in the form of a stronger USD and a weaker ZAR, implying more inflation to come.

The MPC referred to the deteriorating assessment of the balance of risks.   However risks to the inflation rate will always be present and remain difficult to anticipate. What should be expected from a central bank is not accurate risk assessments but that it will react appropriately to the new realities. Especially to the impact of any exchange rate on prices to which the SA economy has proved particularly vulnerable.

Such events are described as supply side shocks to prices,  to be distinguished from the extra demands that might be forcing prices higher.  These supply side forces reverse as the exchange rate recovers or stabilizes or the harvest normalizes or tax rates do not increase any further. Thus these temporary supply side shocks should be left to their own devices – to work themselves out of the system without help or hindrance from higher interest rates.  The Reserve Bank however tends to react to inflation whatever its underlying causes

It often refers to so called second round effects of inflation.  The presumed danger that when inflation rises, for whatever reason, firms with pricing powers will plan for more inflation and set prices accordingly. And so inflation can become a self-fulfilling process.

That is unless corrected by higher interest rates to cause enough of a reduction in demand to prevent firms charging much more. Slack – that is an economy operating below its potential – is therefore the price that might have to be paid to achieve low rates of inflation as the economy is now paying up for.

The problem with this theory of self-fulfilling inflationary expectations in South Africa is that there is little evidence of it. Inflation and inflation expected mostly run closely together. Moreover inflation expected has been much more stable than realized inflation. This strongly suggests that inflation expected would have been a constant rather than a variable influence on actual inflation.

Inflation expected is surely not a simple extrapolation of past inflation. Inflation expectations will take account of the forces that are known to have cause inflation in the past, including the impacyt of reversible supply side shoks on prices. They will be informed by models very similar to the Bank’s own model that forecasts inflation. This Reserve Bank model currently forecasts inflation of about 5% in eighteen months, close to the inflation expected by the bond market.

The Reserve Bank and the market’s ability to forecast inflation is highly vulnerable to error given the unpredictability of the exchange rate and all the other supply side shocks that may send inflation temporarily higher or lower.

The inflationary forces that the Reserve Bank can influence consistently are only those that emerge on the demand side of the economy- not the supply side. The current problem for the economy is now one of much too little demand. A case of too much slack and too little growth.

The Reserve Bank therefore should adopt a very different approach to supply side shocks and to alter its narrative accordingly. One that will convince the market place that interest rate reactions to supply side shocks do not make economic sense. And that by not reacting to them when the economy is performing well below its potential does not mean that the Bank is soft on inflation.

Monetary Policy

Learning by doing – the next phase for monetary policy – reversing QE

October 13th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The success of Quantitative Easing (QE) in promoting a global economic recovery calls for its reversal and the resumption of more normal in monetary affairs. The scale of QE, that is the creation of cash by central banks since 2008, has been extraordinary and unprecedented. Why this injection of cash has not led to more spending, much more inflation and a much greater expansion of the banking systems and in bank deposits than has occurred has been the big surprise. Providing an explanation for these highly muted reactions can explain why the reversal of QE may also be less eventful than might ordinarily be predicted.

The total assets of the major central banks, US, Europe and Japan grew from just over 3 trillion dollars in 2007 to their current levels of over 13 trillion USD, an amount that is still increasing The Fed balance sheet grew from less than one trillion dollars in 2008 to over 4 trillion by 2014.

The key fact to recognize is that almost all of the trillions of cash created by the Fed and other central banks buying the bonds and other securities that so bulked up their balance sheets, came back in the form of extra bank deposits. Commercial member banks before 2008 held minimal cash reserves in excess of what regulations said that were required to hold. They exploded thereafter. These excess reserves in the US peaked at 2.5 trillion dollars in 2014 remain above 2 trillion dollars worth of potential lending power.

The banks holding cash rather than making loans or buying assets has not only led to less spending than might have been predicted, it has also led to a much slower growth in bank deposits. It has shrunk the dramatically the ratio of total US bank deposits to the cash base of the system. This money multiplier has declined from nine times in 2008 to the current 3.5 times. Therefore the size of the banking system relative to the GDP has declined and made the US economy less dependent on bank credit. The US commercial banks on September 27th cash assets were equal to an extraordinary 20% of their deposit liabilities.

Extra bank lending requires that banks attract not only extra cash but also extra capital. Banks were undercapitalized before 2007 and have had to add to their capital to loan ratios. This has restrained bank lending as has a reluctance of potential clients to borrow more. Holding extra cash rather than making additional loans was an understandable choice. The extra cash held by US banks also earns interest, a further incentive to hoarding rather than lending cash. Low inflation – more so deflation – falling prices – can make holding deposits with the Fed, a good investment decision. The Fed minutes released yesterday reveal a concern that currently very low inflation may be “more than transitory”

Coming reductions in the supply of cash to the banking system are very likely to be offset by reductions in the excess cash reserves banks hold. Given the volume of excess cash reserves held by banks the danger is still of too much rather than too little bank lending to come. Were excess cash reserves to be exchanged on a significantly larger scale for bank loans the FED would have to accelerate its bond sales and raise interest rates at a faster pace.

This would all be a sign of faster growth and welcome for it. But there is possibility of a slip twixt central bank cup and lip and that markets will misinterpret the signals coming from central banks. So adding volatility and risks to markets before or as a new normal is established. Past performance will not be a guide to what will be another  unique event in monetary history- first was QE- then its reversal.

SA Economy

The inflation news has become out of date

September 20th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

Inflation in SA rose to 4.8in August- up from 4.6% in July 2017. However in August 2017 prices were largely unchanged, rising by a mere one tenth of one per cent in the month. The statistical anomaly is that a year ago Consumer Prices had actually fallen by about the same 0.1 per cent. And so a monthly increase in August this year of 0.1% was enough to raise the year in year increase in Consumer Prices by 0.2%.

Of further and greater importanc% e is that the Consumer Price Index has been largely stable since April 2017. In April prices increased by 0.1%, in May by a still minimal  0.3%, in June by 0.2% and in July by 0.3%. Helped by a consistently stronger rand compared to a year before, and stable food prices following the drought of last year, the direction of inflation has been decidedly lower. Thus as we show below the increase in prices, measured over consecutive three month periods, has declined sharply. Were such trends to continue headline inflation would fall to three per cent. A time series forecast indicates a much lower rate of inflation next year of about 3%.

 

Picture1

Figure 1: Inflation in South Africa and the underlying trends in consumer prices

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reserve Bank forecasting model of inflation, upon which it will determine its interest rate settings, is not a time series extrapolation of recent trends. It will have the trade weighted rand and food prices as amongst its more inputs. Chris Holdsworth of Investec Securities runs a simulation of the Reserve Bank model that suggest that the forecast rate of inflation for Q1 2018 will have declined marginally and would imply a further reduction in interest rates .[1] He remarks as follows

  • Since the last MPC meeting CPI inflation has dropped from 5.1% in June to 4.6% in July. The MPC’s previous forecast was for CPI inflation to average 4.8% for Q3. The slightly lower than expected print should marginally lower the MPC’s estimate of the inflation trajectory.
  • PPI has dropped from 4.8% in May to 3.7% in July. The fall in PPI inflation should further lower the inflation trajectory.
  • We don’t expect the MPC to make meaningful adjustments to its ZAR and oil price assumptions.
  • Subsequent to the last MPC meeting SA GDP growth for Q2 has come out at +2.5%, up from -0.6% in Q1. Given our understanding of the MPC’s macro-economic model, that should imply a small upward revision to the MPC’s growth assumption for the year (currently 0.5%). This should see a reduction in the expected output gap and an associated increase in the inflation trajectory but we expect the effect to be minimal.
  • The net result is that we expect a minor reduction to the SARB’s inflation trajectory over the medium term. We expect that the SARB will forecast inflation to reach 4.4% in Q1 next year.

A further reduction of 25 basis points in the repo rate therefore seems likely. Especially given the continued absence of any demand side pressures on prices. And so given to the near recession state of the economy. And were the stability of the rand to be maintained and a normal harvest delivered in 2018 the current underlying trends in consumer prices in SA  would be sustained and lead to further reductions in headline inflation and forecasts of it and be accompanied by still short term interest rates. Rates that could fall further and until very welcome strength in spending by households and firms becomes manifest. The conditions for a normal cyclical recovery are falling into place. One can only hope that political developments do not reverse the direction of the rand and the SA risks spreads that have also been receding. Presumably on the belief that better government is in prospect.

It is perhaps worth making an observation about inflation – measured as a year on year increase in prices and – and the advantage in identifying underlying trends in prices within a twelve month period that may be much lower. And portend lower headline inflation to come. The problem for inflation watches and commentators on it – and drawing implications for interest rates- is that 12 months is a long time in economic life. That much of importance can happen to prices or any monthly series within a year that makes year on year comparisons out of date. This is illustrated in a hypothetical example shown below. We show a case of a sharp increase in the price index after a period of stability and low inflation and how this may lead to more and then sharply lower inflation after twelve months.

In the figure below we show a sharp 5% increase in the CPI in early 2016. An increase in the VAT rate or a collapse in the ZAR might be responsible for such a sharp increase.  Thereafter prices are assumed to stabilise for an extended period of time. Perhaps this is because he exchange rate recovers somewhat and the VAT and other tax rates do not increase further. As we show inflation – measured as a year on year increase in prices – initially increases sharply to about 6% p.a and remains at these elevated levels for a full twelve months- where after it collapses back to about zero inflation.

Thus the impact on inflation of an inflation shock will be very temporary provided the underlying trend in prices is a very stable one. Presumably also inflationary expectations as well as models of inflation are fully capable of see through a temporary price shock.  One would hope that monetary policy settings can also see beyond temporary year on year changes in prices. As we hope the SA Reserve Bank is looking ahead rather than behind and will take the opportunity to help stimulate a recovery in spending that is desperately needed.

 

Figure 2: A hypothetical example of price shocks and underlying trends in prices

Figure 2: A hypothetical example of price shocks and underlying trends in prices

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]

Forecasting the MPC’s forecasts; Quantitative Strategy, Investec Bank September 18th 2017

 

SA Economy

What the dollar means for the SA economy

September 15th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The most important single indicator for the future direction of the SA economy is the value of the US dollar compared to the euro and other developed market currencies. When measured this way, and helpfully for SA and the emerging market world, we see that the US dollar has lost nearly 4% of its exchange value this quarter. Dollar weakness has brought a small degree of strength to emerging market (EM) currencies, including the rand, and to metal prices that make up the bulk of SA’s exports.

Dollar strength put pressure on the rand and EM exchange rates for much of the period between 2011 and mid-2016. This was when something of a turning point in dollar strength, weakness in metal prices (in US dollars) and rand and EM exchange rate weakness, was reached. Over this period, the US dollar gained as much as 30% against its peers, while the EM currency index lost about the same against the US dollar, while industrial metal prices and the trade weighted rand fell to about half their values of early 2011 in 2016. (See below)

The dollar has weakened and industrial metal prices have improved since 2016 because the rest of the industrial and emerging market world has begun to play catch up with the revival of the US economy. A stronger Europe and Japan imply more competitive interest rates and returns outside the US and hence less demand for dollars and more for the competing currencies and for metals.

The rand and dollar-denominated RSA bonds have benefited from these trends – despite it should be emphasised – less certainty about the future direction of SA politics and economic policy and a weaker rating accorded by the credit rating agencies. The rand exchange rate since lost more than 50% of its average trade weighted exchange value between 2011 and early 2016. The cost of insuring five-year US dollar-denominated RSA debt had soared to nearly 4% more than the return offered by a five year US Treasury Bond by early 2016. (See below)

Today this risk spread has declined to less than 1.8%, while the rand since early 2016 has gained about 15% on a trade weighted basis and 17% against the US dollar. This improvement has, as indicated, come with general dollar weakness and EM exchange rate strength. But it has also been strong despite the continued uncertainty about the direction of SA politics. The markets, if not the rating agencies, appear to be betting on a better set of policies to come.

It is to be hoped that the markets are right about this. The recent strength of the rand and metal prices offers monetary policy its opportunity to do what it can to help the economy – by aggressively reducing interest rates. Inflation has come down and will stay down if the rand maintains its improved value – and the harvests are normal ones – and the dollar remains where it is. Lower interest rates will lift spending, growth rates and government revenues.

Interest rates were raised after 2014 as the rand weakened and inflation picked up, influenced also by a drought that drove food prices higher. These higher interest rates and prices further depressed spending by South African households and firms and GDP growth. Consistently, interest rates could and should now be lowered because the rand has strengthened and the outlook for inflation accordingly has improved. Does it make good sense for interest rates in SA to take their cue from an exchange rate and other supply-side shocks that drive inflation higher or lower but over which interest rates or the Reserve Bank have no predictable influence? Their only predictable influence seems to be to further depress spending and growth rates. 15 September 2017

Global Financial Markets

Reading the markets – a spring update

September 5th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

These are very good times for emerging market (EM) equities and currencies. The MSCI EM equity index continues to power ahead and has gained over 25% this year. This may be compared to a gain of about 10% for the S&P 500 and the average European equity. The JSE All Share Index has also had a good year and is up by about 16% in US dollars (see figure 1).

A degree of perspective on these recently favourable equity trends is called for. As we show in figure 2 this EM outperformance has come after years of underperformance between 2011 and 2016, as is shown in figure 2. The EM comeback is still very much a partial one that dates from the first quarter of last year. Perhaps some encouragement can be taken from this perspective.

The EM equity comeback (measured in US dollars) can be attributed partly to a weaker US dollar and stronger EM exchange rates. In figure 3 below, we compare the performance of the US dollar vs other developed market exchange rates – mostly vs the euro. The US dollar has weakened significantly since January 2017, by about 8% according to the trade weighted (DXY) index, while the index of EM currencies vs the US dollar has shown a similar degree of strength. The EM Currency Index calculated by JP Morgan (JPMEMX) includes a small weight in the rand. The rand/US dollar exchange rate has performed in line with the average EM exchange rate. Note higher numbers in these figures indicate a more favourabe rate of exchange.

This strongly negative correlation between US dollar weakness vs its peers and EM currency strength vs the US dollar is of long standing, as we show in figure 4 below. The correlation coefficient is of the order of a negative (-0.83) using daily data.

Thus much of the recent strength in EM currencies, including the rand, reflects US dollar weakness vs its peers. As we will demonstrate further below, the recent strength of the rand is much more a tale of the US economy vs its developed market peers than of political and economic developments in SA. The rand has performed very much in line with its own EM peers against the USD,

EM economies and their equity and currency markets have clearly benefitted from a recovery in metal and commodity prices that are dependent on global demands. The global economy has grown faster and in a highly synchronised way in recent months. This news about the state of the global economy has become more encouraging for metal producers. The underperformance of EM currencies and equities since 2011 and their recent recovery is closely associated with the recovery in metal prices, as we show in figure 5 below. Metal prices bottomed out in mid-2016 and have enjoyed a strong move higher since mid-2017, as we show in figure 6.

As with the recovery in EM equity markets, the recovery in metal prices should also be understood as a still partial recovery from the heights of the super-cycle and one that has come after an extended period of lower prices.

The strength in the rand and in metal prices bodes well for the SA economy. It implies more valuable exports and more importantly raises the prospects of lower interest rates – essential if the economy is to enjoy something of a cyclical recovery. The market place appears to have recognised some of the better news about the global economy. The RSA sovereign risk spreads have receded, as we show in figures 8 and 9. The yield on RSA five year dollar denominated debt has fallen sharply from the yields and spreads demanded when President Zuma first intervened in the SA Treasury in December 2015. The cost of issuing RSA dollar-denominated debt has fallen significantly, despite the downgrading of the debt rating agencies.

What has not changed much in recent months has been the spread between rand-denominated RSA bond yields and their US equivalents. For 10 year bonds, the yield spread remains well over 6% p.a. indicating that the rand, despite its recent strength, is still expected to lose its USD exchange value at an average rate of more than 6%. Consistent with this view of persistent rand weakness, is that inflation compensation in the bond market, calculated as the difference between a 10 year vanilla bond yield and its inflation protected equivalent, also remains well above 6%. Inflation expectations or the outlook for the rand have not (yet) responded to the strength of the rand. 5 September 2017

 

Corporate Finance

The Naspers logic – getting our Tencent’s worth

September 1st, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The recent Naspers annual general meeting saw shareholders at serious odds with management about the value of their contribution to the company.

Amidst all the Sturm und Drang and misconceptions about how to measure the performance of the Naspers managers, some facts of the matter deserve proper recognition. Chief among these is that is Naspers managers are expected – emphasis on expected – to destroy shareholders’ value on an heroic (or is it a tragic?) scale.

To explain, were Naspers simply a clone of Tencent, that is the company did nothing but collect and distribute to shareholders the dividends it received for its 34.33% share of Tencent, it would be currently valued as is Tencent itself. Currently it would be worth close to R1.6 trillion. The current market value of NPN is much less than this, about R1.3 trillion, or a staggering near R300bn less than the value of its stake in Tencent.

The correct logical conclusion to come to about this fact is that the market expects the Naspers managers to destroy value on their behalf. In other words, the ambitious capital investment programme of Naspers is currently worth much less (on a net present value basis) than the capital NPN management is expected to deploy over the economic life of the company. To be more precise: worth some R300bn less than it is expected to cost. Why not liquidate all those investments and return the money to shareholders, which would surely close the gap?

Unfortunately for Naspers management, the market has recently become more pessimistic about the capabilities of the Naspers managers. In January 2017, the expected destruction of value was a mere R98bn compared to the current R300bn. It may be concluded that the better Tencent performs, and so adds to the balance sheet strength of Naspers, the more ambition and so the more value destruction the market expects from Naspers. (See chart below)

Independently of the success Tencent has enjoyed in the market place, in which Naspers shareholders share to only a lesser degree, given more value destruction expected, the recent operating performance of the Naspers subsidiaries gives very little cause for believing that their fortunes are about to turn around for the better. We rely here on the Credit Suisse HOLT lens for these observations. Naspers’s cash flow return on investment (CFROI) on its operating assets dropped from -3.6% in 2016 to -10% in 2017. In other words, the operating core of Naspers is destroying value by generating a return on capital far below its opportunity cost of capital. This is nothing new. CFROI has been dropping since March 2011.

The expense missing from every income statement is a charge for the use of shareholders’ equity. Equity is not free and no rational investor wants to give it away for nothing. If we apply a capital charge on the use of Naspers operating assets, its economic profit drops from -R6.2bn in 2016 to -R11bn in 2017. Consistent with these negative returns is that the growth in the sales of these operating subsidiaries has turned negative and the operating margins (expressed as an EBITDA percentage), which were well over 20% between 2004 and 2010, are now barely positive. In 2015 and 2016, the growth in Naspers assets, which includes cash but excludes Tencent and other associate investments, has been at an ambitious rate of over 40% p.a.

Capture

Naspers managers and its shareholders clearly have a very different view of its prospects. Time will tell who has the more accurate view of the capabilities of Naspers management. One would recommend however that the Naspers management put a time limit on their ability to prove the market wrong. If the market in five years continues to value Naspers as a serial value destroyer, its managers should be willing to cut its losses, by radically reducing its investment spending and to unbundle or dispose of its loss making subsidiaries. Any expectation that Naspers is willing to adopt a much more disciplined approach to its capital allocation would add immediate value for its shareholders. 1 September 2017

SA Economy

Is the SA economy glass half full?

August 28th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

The SA economy has begun to offer a few glimmers of cyclical light. Of most importance is that industrial metal prices have continued to recover from their depressed levels of mid-2016, as we show below in figures 1 and 2. The London Metal Exchange Index, in US dollars, is up 20% on its levels of January 2017 – a helpful trend for SA exports and manufacturing and mining activity. Less helpful to the SA economy is that the oil price has also sustained a muted recovery, influenced no doubt by the same pick up in global growth.

Further encouragement for the economy has come from a stronger rand: it has more or less maintained its US dollar value when compared to its emerging market (EM) peers. The US dollar exchange value of the rand has moreover remained consistently ahead of its values of a year ago, as is shown in figure 3.

The stronger rand has helped to reverse the headline rate of inflation, which is now well down on its peak levels of mid-2016 and could easily fall further, as we show in figure 4, where currently favourable trends are extrapolated. Over the past quarter, the consumer price index has risen at less than a 3% annual rate.

The prospect of significantly lower short-term interest rates, which would be essential to any cyclical recovery, has therefore now greatly improved, given prospects of lower inflation. The demand for and supply of cash, a very useful coinciding business cycle indicator, has been growing ever more slowly in recent months and, when adjusted for inflation, has turned significantly negative. Somewhat encouraging therefore is that the cash cycle appears to have reached a cyclical trough (see figure 4). A reversal of the cash cycle is an essential requirement for any cyclical recovery.

Two other activity indicators, retail sales volumes and new vehicle sales, provide somewhat mixed signals about the state of the economy. Retail volumes, as can be seen in figure 5, have continued to increase, albeit at a slow rate, while new vehicles sold in SA have declined sharply since early 2016. However the latest vehicle sales trends as well as retail volumes suggest that the worst of these sales cycles may be behind the economy. The sales trend however remains very subdued and will need all the help it can get from lower interest rates over the next 12 months.

We combine two recent data releases, new vehicle sales and the cash in circulation in July 2017, to establish our Hard Number Index (HNI) of the immediate state of the SA economy. As we show in figure 7, the HNI of economic activity turned decidedly down in mid- 2016 but now appears to have levelled off. The HNI can be compared to the coinciding business cycle measured by the Reserve Bank as we do in Figure 7. Extrapolating this Reserve Bank business cycle indicator also indicates that the worst of the current business cycle may be behind us.

The economic news therefore is not all negative. However essential for an economic recovery is further rand stability and the lower inflation and interest rates that would accompany a stable rand. A combination of better global growth and so higher metal prices would help. So, presumably, would any confirmation of the end of the Zuma regime – a view seemingly already incorporated into the current strength of the rand as well as by the reduction in SA risk premiums. Both the strength of the rand, relative to other EM exchange rates, and the spread between RSA Yankee (US dollar) bond yields and US Treasuries indicate that the market expects the Zuma influence over economic policy to be over soon. For the sake of the rand, the economy and its prospects, one must hope the market is well informed. 25 August 2017

 

Corporate Finance

The avoidable risks Eskom assumes on behalf of all South Africans.

August 21st, 2017 by Brian Kantor

A shorter version published in Business Day is available here

The avoidable risks Eskom assumes on behalf of all South Africans.

The owners of Eskom (all South Africans) should be aware of the grave risks Eskom’s managers and directors have taken on their behalf. The risks that is to the value of the many billions of rands that have been deployed on their behalf building plant and equipment (PPE) to generate and distribute electricity.

The danger is that all this PPE may be worth much less than it cost. There is also the matter of servicing and repaying the over R300bn in debt that has been incurred funding these developments, much of it that is tax payer guaranteed. These debts are large enough to threaten the credit of the Republic itself, as has become apparent.

The essential, unsatisfactory nature of a state-owned business is only part of the problem, namely that the primary purpose of the business easily becomes that of serving the interests of its employees, from top to bottom. The interests of its customers and owners become secondary and are poorly served. However the main problem is when the operations are of such an order of scale that any mistaken investment programmes or operational failures become significant for the economy at large, as has become the case with Eskom.

The further danger is that the burden of these mistakes and servicing the debt incurred are passed on to the consumers of electricity in SA in the form of further increases in prices. But Eskom’s monopoly applies only to the electricity delivered over its grid. Thus increases in electricity prices may prove self-defeating for Eskom as well as highly damaging to the competitiveness of the SA economy. Higher prices lead to lower levels of demand – perhaps the point where sales revenues decline rather than increase as key customers become more energy-conserving and turn to alternative supplies off the grid.

Potential customers can shut down operations or not start new projects when the economic case for their operations make much less sense, given higher real electricity prices. Investing in solar panels, small wind turbines or increasingly efficient gas turbines installed onsite, can make good sense as drawing on the grid becomes ever more expensive. And who knows what opportunities innovation and invention may bring for the generation of electricity on a small scale in the near future?

A further threat to Eskom and us, its owners, is that its largest customers, energy intensive miners and refiners of metals, who account for about 50% of demand for Eskom’s output, have publicly indicated a profound loss of confidence in it as a reliable competitive supplier of energy. They refer to operations being shut down or transferred outside of SA and a much weaker case for expanding capacity to upgrade (beneficiate) the metals and minerals brought to the surface.

There is in reality no good reason for all South Africans to have to carry these risks to the supply of and demand for electricity in SA. Such risks could be readily absorbed by willing new owners of the PPE – at the right price. Owners perfectly capable of raising their own sources of debt and equity capital to the purpose. The capital market has a proven taste for the predictable income streams that electricity utilities can deliver.

The Eskom assets could be divided up sensibly and auctioned off to a number of independent, capable operators. Hopefully the prices realised for the assets would be sufficient to pay off the Eskom debts. But even if not, it would be better to realise as much as possible, as soon as possible, for these assets, than to incur more debt to keep Eskom on its present path.

One advantage of perhaps lower-than-replacement-cost prices paid for the Eskom assets would be that it might enable its new owners to offer more competitively priced electricity – while still providing an adequate return on the capital they have invested. Prices for energy that could then encourage miners and manufacturers who would then be more internationally competitive thanks to lower energy costs. Competitive electricity prices, by international standards, could prove to be a stimulus for a revival of SA manufacturing and mining and the accompanying employment.

The SA economy stands to benefit from a much more competitive market for energy; from many more generators and distributors of electricity who would compete for customers on price and reliable supplies; from contracts that would facilitate the raising of capital on favourable terms for new owners and managers; and from the alternative technologies, relying on wind, solar or gas, that would have every opportunity to compete for custom on the same competitive terms. This would be a system much more like those that apply in the US or UK, a system designed

Global Financial Markets

Go offshore – for the right reasons

August 4th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

*Published in Business Day on 4 August 2017 (Published version available here)

Offshore diversification by SA firms is not necessarily the best way for investors to diversify their risks.

South African business leaders are demonstrating a heightened taste for expansion offshore. They are borrowing more locally and abroad to fund this growth. The reasons for doing so seem obvious enough. The stagnant SA economy now offers them minimal growth opportunities, yet they are likely to be well rewarded for growing earnings. Clearly such growth would be helpful to managers – is it as likely to be helpful to their shareholders?

It all depends on how much of their capital or debt incurred on their behalf is employed to pursue earnings growth. Unless the extra cash generated by expansion abroad or domestically can be confidently expected to provide a cash return in excess of the opportunity cost of the extra cash invested (cash in for expected cash out, all properly discounted to the present with proper allowance for the maintenance and replacement of the assets acquired) the investment should not be made. One wonders how many of the offshore acquisitions by SA companies offshore can confidently offer cost-of-capital-beating returns for their SA shareholders?

Why then the near flood of such acquisition activity?  Every director acting as the custodian of the capital of shareholders should know that growing earnings or earnings per share may not be helpful to shareholders, if too much capital has been expended to realise growth in earnings.  If managers are incentivised to grow earnings regardless of the extra capital employed to do so, they should not be surprised when managers seek growth wherever it can be found, regardless of how much it costs and whether or not it destroys wealth for shareholders. The golden rule of finance is always relevant: positive net present value (NPV) strategies are worthy of consideration but negative NPV strategies should be declined, especially if they are being made for “strategic reasons” (when an investment is made for “strategic reasons” it often means that there are no “financial reasons” for pursuing it).

A further benefit to managers from expansion offshore will come in the form of a more diversified flow of earnings when these include earnings generated independently of their SA operations. Full exposure to SA risk may threaten the survival of a business and so their own employment prospects. Shareholders however may have no need for managers to diversify their risks. They diversify their portfolios by holding small stakes in a large number of companies. The more specialised and efficient the companies they are able to invest in, the better. Conglomeration in principle comes at a price – that of the cost of a head office or holding company discount. Executives who diversify earnings on behalf of their shareholders are not doing them a favour. Shareholders can do it themselves at a fraction of the cost, e.g., no expensive investment bankers are required, and they can exit when they wish by simply selling assets in their portfolio.

South African shareholders, especially private shareholders, have enjoyed much greater freedom in recent years to invest directly in companies listed offshore. The case for their SA managers investing offshore on their behalf as part of a diversification strategy is therefore a weak one.

SA institutional portfolios subject to a 25% limit to their offshore holdings may have a stronger case for JSE-listed companies investing offshore on their behalf. Indeed, the case for what are essentially offshore companies having a listing on the JSE, primary or secondary listings, is predicated on this constraint on their asset allocations. These companies, with minimal exposure to the SA economy, can raise capital on the JSE on superior terms to those available to them elsewhere. Or, to put it alternatively, they can benefit from a higher share price (in US dollars, on the JSE) by catering to the SA institutional investor. For the private SA investor able to invest abroad, essentially without limit, it makes little sense to pay any premium for access to offshore earnings, dividends or the capital appreciation provided by a JSE listing. The private investor can diversify directly, without exchange control constraints, by investing in the most promising of companies listed offshore.

All this is not to suggest that SA companies and their managers cannot succeed offshore. Some exceptional managers have created a lot of wealth for their SA shareholders by doing so. Rather it is to argue that such attempts should be made on their own strict investment merits; that is, they offer a return (cash in/cash out) that exceeds the risk-adjusted returns their shareholders could hope to achieve independently. Chasing earnings growth regardless of properly measured returns on the capital at risk, or because it offers diversification, is not nearly a good enough reason to go offshore. Without such good reason and given the lack of growth opportunities in SA onshore, it would be better to return excess cash (excess capital) to their SA shareholders by paying dividends or buying back shares or debt. Let shareholders decide for themselves how they wish to diversify their risks.

*David Holland is from Fractal Value Advisors

 

SA Economy

How to get South Africa growing

July 26th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

South Africans would benefit greatly if the country’s state-owned enterprises were to be privatised. Full story as published in FinWeek here.

SA Economy

Out with the credit regulator

July 26th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

I have a very radical policy proposal, which is to repeal the National Credit Act. Repeal would allow lenders and borrowers complete freedom to contract with each other for credit on any terms they found agreeable. It would help transform the economic prospects of many South Africans who do not benefit from regular incomes and so do not qualify for credit under current regulations.

Freer access to credit would be particularly helpful to informal traders and aspirant farmers and entrepreneurs. By saving the significant costs of complying with current regulations, a repeal might well lead to less expensive borrowing terms for the many who currently receive credit. Strong competition for potential credit business would convert lower compliance costs of providing credit into lower charges for all borrowers. The reputation of the lenders for fair treatment of its customers would become even more critical in attracting new and repeat credit business. A lender would not have to proclaim it is an authorised financial service provider as if this were some kind of guarantee that absolves borrowers or lenders of the need to undertake proper diligence.

The importance of maintaining reputation – brand value – in which so much is invested, including training employees to deliver their services better than their rivals, is what keeps profit-seeking businesses honest and efficient. It attracts the most valuable type of business, repeat business.

Perhaps, given their knowledge and experience, the regulators and compliance officers that would be rendered unemployed should my proposal come to pass, could be converted into useful predictors of the ability of potential borrowers to deserve the credit on offer. Identifying much more accurately and easily the credit rating of any potential borrower would allow for well-targeted, attractive offers of credit – perhaps initiated at very low cost over the internet. Credit markets are particularly well-placed to apply the new science of big data management that is revolutionising all business.

There is a long history of limiting (defined as usurious) interest rates that may be charged to borrowers, which has disturbed and complicated the contracts borrowers and lenders agree to – and in turn has encouraged regulation of these complicated terms. If lenders were free to declare all revenues they expect to receive from a borrower as simply interest or capital repayment, at whatever rate agreed to, borrowers could easily make comparisons of the costs or benefits on offer. This is the case when a motor car is leased for a monthly payment. How much of this payment pays for the car and how much for the motor plan is irrelevant to the driver. It is simply a question of how much car the monthly payment buys. The benefits of the transaction to the motor dealer, the lessee and the lessor are bundled into one convenient monthly payment. We do not pay a hotel separately for towels, linen, or air conditioning – ‘free’ breakfast may even be included in the daily rate. And no regulator (yet) tells the hotel to itemise its menu or what services they are allowed to charge for and how much they can charge

The National Credit Regulator however allows the lender only clearly defined fees and payments that include the repayment of the principal debt; an initiation fee, a service fee, interest, the cost of any credit insurance, default administration charges and collection costs. It has argued that a fee charged to retail customers to join a club of customers cannot be levied. The jury or, rather, the judges are out on this one.

Club fees, delivery, insurance or other charges are all contributions to the lender’s revenue, in addition to interest payments that are controlled. Reducing the lender’s ability to raise revenues from explicit interest charges or to protect themselves with capital repayments leads inevitably to a complicated array of fees to supplement interest received. Restricting the flow of revenues therefore means less credit supplied to well- qualified borrowers. This is an unsatisfactory outcome that an unregulated credit market would overcome. 7 July 2017

SA Economy

Slides: Get South Africa growing

July 20th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

Slides presented at the Denker Conference on Eradicating Poverty held Thursday 20th July available here

The Rand

Rand strength surprise

July 19th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

A shorter version of the below article was published in the Business Day – Available here

The rand does not always perform as expected, thanks to the US dollar, to which we should always pay close attention

Rand strength almost always surprises the market. The large spread between SA interest rates and US or other developed market interest rates indicates that the market expects the rand to weaken consistently against the US dollar and other developed market currencies. By the close on 18 July this spread for 10 year money was 6.43%. To put it another way, the rand was expected at that point to lose its exchange value in US dollar at the average annual rate of 6.43% over the next 10 years.

This difference, or interest carry, is also by definition the annual cost of a US dollar or euro to be delivered in the future. And so, the forward rate of exchange for the USD/ZAR to be delivered in a year or more always stands at a premium to the spot rate. This year, the daily interest spread on a 10 year government bond has varied between 6.4 and 5.94 percentage points while the USD/ZAR has varied between a most expensive R13.20 to a best of R12.42, using daily close rates of exchange. It should be noticed in figure 1, that while the interest spread- or expected exchange rate has a narrow range – the two series move together. That is a stronger rand leads to less rand weakness expected (less of a spread) and vice-versa.

Another way of putting this point is that the weaker the rand the more it is expected to weaken further and vice versa. This is not an intuitively obvious outcome. Normally the more some good or service falls in price the more, not less attractive it becomes to buyers. This is the case with developed market exchange rates – dollar strength vs the euro tends to narrow the carry. But this is not the case with the rand exchange rate and perhaps also other emerging market exchange rates. For the USD/ZAR exchange rate, rand weakness is associated consistently with still more weakness expected and vice versa as figure 1 and 2 indicates. It would seemingly therefore take an extended period of rand strength to improve the outlook, as indeed was the case between 2003 and 2006 when the spread narrowed to about 2% with significant rand strength (See figure 2).

 

While a more favourable direction for the USD/ZAR may well come as a surprise – the explanation of rand strength or weakness should be more obvious than it appears to be, judged by much of the commentary offered on changes in the exchange value of the rand. The reality demonstrated below is that the behaviour of the USD/ZAR exchange rate to date has had much less to do with South African events and political developments and much more to do with global forces than is usually appreciated. And such global forces affect the exchange value of the rand and other emerging market currencies in similar ways.

Unless the future of SA economic policy is very different from the past, this is still likely to still be the case in the months ahead. In other words, rand strength or weakness in the months ahead, will have a great deal more to do with what happens to the US economy and the strength or weakness of the US dollar against other major currencies, than political and economic developments in SA. Predicting the USD/ZAR accurately therefore will require an accurate forecast of the US dollar vs mostly the euro, and also to a lesser extent the yen, the Swiss franc, the Swedish kroner and the Canadian dollar.

We show below in figures 3 and 4 below how the USD/ZAR exchange rate moves closely in line with those of other emerging market (EM) currencies. Furthermore it is also shown how all EM currencies strengthen when the USD weakens against other major currencies and vice versa. That is US dollar strength vs its peers is strongly associated with EM exchange rate weakness generally and so also USD/ZAR weakness.

In the correlation matrix below, using daily data from 2012, it may be seen that the correlation between the trade weighted US dollar vs developed currencies, and the JP Morgan Index of emerging market currencies is a high and negative (-0.82) (dollar strength = emerging market weakness) The correlation of the US dollar with our own emerging market nine currency basket (US dollar/EM) that excludes the rand, is even greater at ( 0.98) The correlation of daily exchange rates between the USD/ZAR and the trade-weighted dollar index is (0.89). In other words, the stronger the trade-weighted dollar, the higher its numerical value, the more expensive the US dollar has become. As may also be seen in the table below, the correlation between the USD/EM nine currency basket and the USD/ZAR is also very high (0.95).

These relationships are also indicated in figures 3 and 4 below. In these charts the trade-weighted dollar in these figures is inverted for ease of comparison – higher values indicate weakness and lower values strength. It may be seen that US dollar strength after 2014 was closely associated with emerging market and rand weakness. Very recently, since June 2017, it is shown how a small degree of US dollar weakness has been associated with emerging market and rand strength.

 

In figure 4 below we show the ratio of the USD/ZAR to our Investec nine currency basket (USD/EM) since 2012. This ratio (2012=1) widened sharply after President Jacob Zuma sacked Minister Finance Nhlanhla Nene, only bring in Pravin Ghordan a few days later. This ratio then narrowed sharply after the second quarter of 2016, indicating much less SA-specific risk was gradually being priced into the rand.

(The nine currencies: Equally weighted Turkish lira, Russian ruble, Hungarian forint, Brazilian real, Mexican, Chilean and Philippine pesos, Indian rupee and Malaysian ringgit.)

The second Zuma intervention in March 2017, when Gordhan was in turn sacked by Zuma, had less of an impact on the relative value of the rand. In figure 5 below, we show a close up of this ratio in June and July 2017 after the independence of the SA Reserve Bank was called into question by the SA Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane. The ratio initially widened on the statement by the Public Protector, to indicate more SA risk.  But the rand and its emerging market peers both strengthened as a result of a degree of US dollar weakness against the other major currencies, as is shown in figures 5 and 6 below.

Given the history of the USD/ZAR it should be appreciated that betting against the rand at current rates is also mostly a bet on the value of the US dollar vs the euro and other developed market currencies. Hence the causes of dollar strength or weakness needs careful consideration. The US dollar strengthens US growth beats expectations, leading to higher interest rates in the US relative to growth and interest rates in the likes of the Eurozone as well as to US dollar strength. Emerging market currencies and the rand can be expected to weaken in this scenario. A weaker US dollar and stronger euro will tend to have the opposite effect, as we have seen recently.

Relatively slower US growth and a more dovish Fed can be very helpful to emerging market exchange rates (like the rand) over the next few months. This is providing the political economy of SA is not to be radically transformed. The financial markets, judged by the ZAR/EM exchange rate ratio and the yield spreads, are currently strongly demonstrating a belief in policy continuity in SA. 19 July 2017

SA Economy

Separating the influences of politics and economics

July 6th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

These are fraught times for South Africans. The Public Protector has attacked the constitutional protection provided to the Reserve Bank and the inflation targeting mandate prescribed for it by the Treasury. The (false) notion of white monopoly capital – introduced to counter the critics of state capture – has become a constant refrain and irritant to white South Africans who play such a crucial role in our economy. The tale of corruption at the highest levels of the state is being continuously reinforced by extraordinary revelations out of cyberspace.

They further drain the confidence of businesses and households, whose reluctance to spend has led the economy into recession. The election of a new head of the ANC and presumptive President is being be contested on the issue of corruption and who bears the responsibility for it.

The ANC is currently debating economic policy. Appointed economic commissions have debated the issues and will reveal soon just how the governing party’s economic policy intentions have changed.

These uncertainties could be expected to influence the value of the rand and of SA equities and bonds listed on the JSE. Such would appear to be the case with a recently weaker rand and upward pressure on bond yields. JSE-listed equities, when valued in rands rather than US dollars, may behave somewhat differently in response to SA political risks. Given that many of the companies listed on the JSE (with large weights in the calculation of the All Share and other indices) derive much of their revenues and incur much of their costs outside of SA, their rand values tend to benefit from rand weakness, especially when this is associated with additional risks specific to South Africa. There are other risks to the share market that are common to the global economy and emerging markets generally. These forces are likely to effect the US dollar value of these companies, mostly established on offshore stock markets that are then translated into rand values at prevailing exchange rates. Rand strength since mid-2016 has been associated with improved global economic prospects identified by higher commodity and metal prices and increases in the US dollar value of emerging market (EM) equities generally.

It is possible to identify SA-specific risks by observing the performance of the rand relative to other EM currencies. Further evidence can be derived from the spreads between RSA bond yields and the equivalent yields offered by developed market governments and other EM issuers of US dollar-denominated bonds. We provide such evidence in figure 1 below.

It should be appreciated that bond yields in the US and Europe all kicked up very sharply last week (Thursday 29 June) after ECB President Mario Draghi indicated a much more sanguine view of the outlook for growth and inflation in Europe. The prospect of higher policy-determined interest rates accordingly improved, as did the likelihood of an earlier, rather than later, end to quantitative easing (QE) in Europe and its reversal, or tapering. This led to a degree of euro strength and dollar weakness – but as we shall see EM currencies, not only the rand, lost ground to the weaker US dollar. An early hint of US tapering in 2013 had led to US dollar strength and EM currency weakness and the responses in EM bond markets did have a mild hint of these earlier taper tantrums, as we will demonstrated. Better news about US manufacturing this week helped the US dollar recover some of its losses against the euro. Late on Friday (30 June) the euro was trading at 1.1426 – early yesterday (5 July) it was being exchanged at 1.132.

As we show in figure 1, the USD/ZAR exchange rate has moved mostly in line with the EM currency basket since 20121. The rand is well described and explained as an EM currency. As demonstrated by the ratio of the rand to the EM basket, the rand did relatively poorly for much of the period under observation, and especially after the first President Jacob Zuma intervention in the SA Treasury in December 2015. Then the rand, at its worst, weakened by as much as 25% more than had the average EM currency.

However through much of 2016, the rand did significantly better against the US dollar than the EM basket, with the ratio ZAR/EM (1 in 2012) back again to 1 in 2017, indicating less SA-specific risk. However the second Zuma intervention, the sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in March 2017, reversed some of this improvement in the relative performance of the rand against other EM peers – but then was followed again by a degree of further rand strength compared to the EM average.

This improvement in the relative value of the rand was interrupted again in modest degree towards 27 June, as we show more clearly in figure 2 below. The ratio of these exchange rates, based as 1 in early 2017, was 1.02 midday on 5 July. However at the time of writing (late 5 July) the rand has weakened further against the US dollar and the other developed market currencies and presumably also against other EM currencies.

The impact of the most recent news flow, including the news leak on the morning of 5 July that the ANC had called for state ownership of the Reserve Bank, led to about a 1% decline in the rand against other EM currencies by midday yesterday, 5 July. By then the USD/ZAR had weakened from an overnight R13.2 to R13.398, with more weakness following. The EM currency basket had also weakened that morning of 5 July but by only about 0.42% against the US dollar. It should be recognised that much, of the rand weakness in 2017was caused by global forces reflected widely in the EM financial markets.

We await further news about the resolutions adopted by the ANC gathering and pointers to the election of a new ANC leader. The interpretation of these political developments will reveal themselves in the financial markets in the same direction as they have to date. The change in ownership of the Reserve Bank is symbolic and without operational substance. The operations of the Bank are determined entirely by the executive directors and managers who are appointed by the State. The 600 private shareholders (of whom I happen to be one with 100 shares), receive a constant predetermined 4% annual dividend and have the right only to appoint seven of the central bank’s 10 non-executive directors and to attend the AGM. But as we have noticed, symbols have significance and do point to the future direction of economic policy. Any threat to Reserve Bank independence or to fiscal conservatism is a threat to the rand and to the bond market, but less, as we point out below, to the rand value of the equity market.

 

When we turn to the bond markets a similar picture emerges: a modest increase in the SA risk premiums in late June and early July. Long term interest rates have all moved higher in response to the words of central bankers in Europe. However the spread between RSA yields and US yields has not widened materially, perhaps by only 8 basis points.

This spread incidentally is now as low as it was in early 2015, despite the downgrading of RSA debt by the rating agencies. It may be concluded from these generally favourable developments in the currency and bond markets, that the market is discounting the threat to SA’s economic policy settings posed by President Zuma. The market may well have been anticipating the end of the Zuma presidency.

 

The spread between RSA and other EM bond yields has also been well contained – despite political developments in SA. The five year RSA Yankee bond’s Credit Default Swap (CDS) spread vs the US – very similar to the spread between the RSA Yankee bond yield and the Treasury bond yield – has moved marginally higher. The spread between other high yield EM and RSA CDSs has narrowed marginally, indicating a somewhat less favourable (relative) rating for RSA debt in recent days. RSA CDS swap spreads over US Treasuries are compared below in figure 6 to those applying to dollar denominated bonds issued by Turkey, Brazil and Russia. Little change in EM credit ratings, that is what it costs to insure such debt against default, can be noticed.

JSE-listed equities by contrast have significantly underperformed their EM peers in recent weeks, as may be seen in figure 7 below. The strong rand has been a head wind for the JSE, given the preponderance of companies with offshore exposure and whose US dollar values are determined on offshare markets and translated into rands at prevailing exchange rates. Over the longer run the US dollar value of the JSE and the EM benchmarks track very closely, helped by similar exchange rate trends as well as earnings trends.

The SA economy plays on the JSE have not yet had the benefit of lower interest rates that usually accompany a stronger rand and lower inflation. So what has been a headwind for the rand values of the global plays has not yet turned into a tailwind for the SA economy plays: the retailers, banks and especially the mid- and small-cap counters that have trailed the market in general.

A cyclical recovery of the SA economy cannot occur without reductions in short term interest rates. One can only hope that the Reserve Bank does not wish to assert its independence of politics by further delaying reductions in interest rates. These are urgently called for and have every justification, even given its own very narrowly focused inflation targeting modus operandi, of which incidentally, I have also been highly critical of. 6 July 2017

1 Equally weighted Turkish lira, Russian ruble, Hungarian forint, Brazilian real, Mexican, Chilean and Philippine pesos, Indian rupee and Malaysian ringgit.

*The views expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of Investec Wealth & Investment

SA Economy

An exercise in persuading South Africans that a much better economic way is open to them

June 30th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

My book Get SA Growing (Jonathan Ball 2017) hopes to persuade South Africans that there is a clear and highly realistic way out of our poverty trap. And that is to let all our people exercise much more freedom to help themselves improve their economic circumstances. Or in other words for the economy to rely much more on highly competitive market forces, to determine output, incomes, jobs and wages. There is overwhelming support from economic history, especially from the recent immense poverty reduction achievements of many Asian economies, of how it is possible, using the power of the market place, to lift billions of people out of absolute poverty.

South Africa could be playing much more helpfully to its objective strengths – and that is the competence and competiveness of established businesses and new entrants to business to effectively deliver goods and services and employment and incomes. And are highly capable of doing much more for their stakeholders. Not only for their owners, but for their numerically much more important customers and employees.  And their owners, often pension and retirement funds who manage most of our savings, are rapidly becoming as racially representative of the work-force. Something ignored so opportunistically by the politics of empowerment.

The book tries to build trust in and respect for market forces by examining and explaining what goes on in our economy and how and why it could be better organized for the benefit of nearly all of us- and especially the many desperate poor. It is written by an economist for my fellow South Africans who share my frustration with our economic failure.

We should have more respect for the rights of individuals to make their own decisions and bear the consequences of them. And we should not allow adults who have the power to elect their government to be treated as if they were children in need of close supervision- an assumption often convenient for politicians and the officials who direct government spending on their behalf. Private providers of goods and services, now supplied by government agencies, would treat people much more as valued customers rather than as supplicants.

Privatization of the delivery of benefits – currently funded by the taxpayer – would produce much better results- especially in education – where the spending and tax burden is a heavy one and the outcomes so disappointing. The extra skills that would command employment and higher incomes are simply not emerging nearly well enough. Radical reforms are required that would make public schools and hospitals private ones. And convert public enterprises into more efficient private ones that would not convert losses and poor operating procedures into ever increasing public debts. Privatization could be used to pay off the expensive public debt.

A much greater reliance on and encouragement for the free play of market forces is called for in South Africa Much less should be expected from well-meaning national development plans or from even honestly governed state owned corporations to deliver the essential jobs and goods and services. Perhaps even more dangerous to the well- being of all South Africans would be to provide even greater opportunity for doing government business, funded by taxpayers, on highly favourable (non-competitive) terms with the politically well-connected few. The newly promulgated Mining Charter is an exercise in extreme crony-capitalism that will undermine the future of mining in SA and its ability to create incomes, jobs and tax revenues.

Faster economic growth would be truly transformational.  Building on the strengths we have- on our skilled human capital that is globally competitive – and so very vulnerable to emigration – and on the proven ability to raise financial capital from global markets when the prospects are favourable – faster growth would greatly stimulate the upward mobility of an increasingly skilled black South Africans. The upper reaches of the economy could soon become as racially transformed as have the ranks of the middle income classes. And the very poor and less skilled (now mostly not working) would benefit greatly from increased competition for their increasingly valuable and scarce services. Forcing transformation of the leaders of the SA economy would have the opposite effect. It would mean further economic stagnation and increased resentment of higher income South Africans.

The hope is that the book will make it more likely that the economic future of South Africa will be decided in a less racially charged way- with more reliance on meritocratic market forces. South Africa in fact undertakes an extraordinary degree of redistributing earned incomes, unequal because the valuable skills that command high incomes are so unequally distributed. That is unusual amounts of income is currently taken from the very well off to fund government expenditure – judged by the practices of other economies with comparable incomes per head. But economic stagnation has now severely limited the capacity to help the poor. More of the higher incomes that come with growth can then be redistributed to the least advantaged -hopefully with much more help from private suppliers of the benefits provided.  Growth and redistribution is very possible for South Africa- should we change our ways and grow faster – as the book hopes to persuade South Africans to do.