When Zuma goes

April 19th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

There will be good economic reasons for rejoicing should President Jacob Zuma relinquish his post in the near future.

The rand would in all likelihood strengthen and would probably move back into line with its emerging currency market peers. Today this would have meant a USD/ZAR exchange rate of approximately R12.60.

Lower inflation will follow a stronger rand and bring lower short term interest rates in its wake. Cheaper goods and services and credit would encourage households to spend more, as would the higher house prices and equity in homes that accompany lower mortgage rates and a more hopeful outlook for South Africa. And the firms that supplied them would be much more inclined to add capacity and hire more employees. The SA business cycle would turn up.

The first Zuma attempt to control the Treasury in December 2015 took the yield on RSA 10 year bonds from 8.5% p.a in early December that year to about 9.6% by early January 2016. This move also widened the spread between RSA and US debt by about 100bps from about 5.7% p.a to 6.7%. The latest Zuma intervention in the Treasury has seen this risk premium rise further, but not dramatically, from a still unsatisfactory 6.46% level in early 2017, to the current 6.6% p.a level.

This spread may be regarded as the extra returns in rands that South African investments have to be able to offer to justify their viability – in addition to their covering the additional business risks associated with a particular enterprise. This extra return is also the rate at which the rand is expected to depreciate over the next ten years. The weaker the rand, the more inflation expected.

The cost of insuring SA five year, US dollar-denominated debt against default, an accurate measure of real sovereign risk, has followed a similar pattern, rising from 1.82% p.a at its lowest in 2017 to the current 2.15% p.a. When calculated in US dollars, an investment in a South African asset would be required to return over 2% p.a. more in US dollars than an equivalent US investment, to justify its value.

Greater risks demand higher returns and the higher the required returns, the fewer investment projects will qualify – to the grave disadvantage of the economy and its growth prospects. The object of economic policy should be to reduce such risks rather than to raise them, something the Zuma presidency has clearly failed at. Yet, given the reactions of the credit rating agencies, which have downgraded SA credit (indicating a higher probability of default on our debt), these market reactions must be regarded as surprisingly subdued.

The rand, and the market in RSA bonds, clearly benefit to a degree from the prospect that Zuma might not survive the campaign to remove him. Were Zuma to go, the benefits could extend well beyond the promise of a revival of fiscal rectitude and less inflation and lower interest rates. It would offer the prospect of a radical economic transformation. By this, I mean the cleaning of the Aegean stables that the state-owned companies (SOCs) have become. It would not require any Herculean effort to do.

A few investment bankers could do the job of converting the SOCs into a number of ordinarily valuable and well-managed businesses that compete with each other. They would be run efficiently and deliver their goods and services at competitive prices – as business have to do to survive the market test.

Can anyone seriously believe, in light of the evidence, that these SOCs with monopoly powers are essential to develop the SA economy? Or fail to understand that their actions are inevitably driven by the narrow interests of their managers and employees and what their suppliers can extract from them?

The proceeds from their privatisation could be used to pay off much of SA’s debt and dramatically reduce the interest burden of serving it, thus opening up the prospect for genuine poverty relief. This transformation – turning great weakness into strength – would help raise the growth potential of the SA economy – and truly transform the economic prospects of all South Africans. 18 April 2017