The South African Reserve Bank in Pretoria.
Many high-income economies, and also middle-income economies seeking to transition to high-income economies, employ inflation targeting.

South Africa is a middle-income economy and this means it is able to afford social-welfare payments and other social services that low-income economies typically would struggle to do on their government earnings (taxes) alone, and so these countries rely on international donor aid or access to employment in neighbouring countries, among other supports, such as Zimbabwe.

In seeking to protect the value of the rand (by preventing high inflation), the SA Reserve Bank (SARB) is seeking to maintain macroeconomic drivers fundamental to a stable economic system, and not an economy that is heading to junk status - ultimately a failed state which is unable to make social-welfare payments to the poor.

Indeed, it is the poor who are most rapidly afflicted by sharply rising prices (the removal of inflation targeting), particularly the prices of food and other necessities as they spend the bulk of their income on these items, often going without. A high-inflation environment, where inflation targeting is abandoned, would mean a rapid (likely double digit) rise in the cost of living, which the poor would not be able to afford, and would have to increasingly go without.

When the question of economic growth versus inflation targeting is introduced, then the answer is somewhat different, and indeed the US, a highly successful, high-income economy, balances a dual mandate of seeking both low unemployment (employment creating growth) and low inflation.

How the US differs from South Africa, though, is that its unemployment rate, in low, single digits, is not comparable to South Africa’s high rate, officially now close to 30 percent (27.7 percent), in that South Africa’s unemployment rate contains a large structural element (which we estimate up to 22 percent).

This means that even if we cut interest rates substantially, despite high, and expected high, inflation (abandon both inflation targeting and the independence of the SA Reserve Bank), these interest rate cuts would not reduce unemployment to below 22 percent. Instead, what is needed is strong, persistent and inclusive economic growth.

Indeed, strong, inclusive economic growth that continues (economic growth which ensures the socio-economic well-being of all the countries citizens) is the only sustainable solution to sustainably and radically reducing unemployment to single digits, eliminating poverty and radically dropping inequality.

We estimate reducing unemployment to single digits would take continuous real gross domestic product (GDP) above 6 percent from current levels for at least 10 years, along with strengthening (not weakening) South Africa’s institutions.

That is, real GDP growth of above 6 percent from current levels every single year for at least 10 years driven by the private business sector. Without strong economic growth of this magnitude, there will be insufficient incentive to employ the number of individuals needed to drop South Africa’s unemployment rate sharply to single digits.

The government has run out of borrowing capacity (if it wishes to retain an investment grade credit rating), and its debt is instead in the process of being downgraded to sub-investment grade, with negative outlooks on its key credit ratings that remain investment grade (negative outlooks mean the next move will be a rating downgrade), it can no longer borrow to pay current expenditure (which includes public servants’ remuneration), as it has done in part, resulting in a primary deficit.

What is happening now is that the credit rating downgrades risk further downgrades and a lower growth environment as business and consumer confidence falls.

Already depressed confidence levels have seen the South African economy tip into recession after a slow, steady decline in economic growth since 2009. Business confidence has been depressed since 2009.

Why? Initially as a legacy issue from the global economic crisis, but then, after the global economy saw growth lifting, South Africa followed a different growth trajectory. Key institutional strengths are necessary in any successful economy to improve the standard of living for all its citizens (provide socio-economic transformation).

No country has sustained successful socio-economic transformation to higher living standards as key institutional strengths, such as central bank independence, have been eroded.

It is not the role of the reserve bank to achieve meaningful socio-economic transformation. In any case not only is it impossible for just one entity to do so, but the key problem is a radical loss of confidence in the macroeconomic outlook.

Meaningful socio-economic transformation can only be achieved by fast, sustainable GDP growth, which in turn can only be achieved by strengthening and maintaining core institutions (such as inflation targeting, central bank independence, judicial independence, private sector property rights (including intellectual property), eliminating corruption and wasteful government expenditure, reducing unnecessary regulation, ensuring transparency and consistency of government policy-making, low costs of crime and violence, strong auditing and reporting standards, efficacy of corporate boards and investor protection. 

Crucially, government policies need to be balanced with support for robust, broad-based private business sector activity (an environment where risk and return can be priced with near certainty) if lasting, meaningful socio-economic transformation is to occur.

The private business sector has always been the growth engine of any economy, and with fiscal stimulation having run out of steam, with government finances now constrained, monetary stimulation (monetary policy accommodation) has come under scrutiny. However, unlike the robust debate which takes place between the reserve bank and the private business sector, public sector threats to the constitutional independence of the reserve bank are unhelpful as it cannot bring about, let alone achieve, meaningful socio-economic transformation. The best the reserve bank can do is balance regulation on the financial services industry with care to underpin sustainable positive activity (and employment) in it, while ensuring a workable inflation environment, as businesses also cannot operate successfully in a high-inflation environment, particularly one that is at risk of runaway inflation.

Tinkering with the cornerstones of economic success that are encapsulated by the strengths of core institutions (the global norms for successful economies), historically results in unsustainable socio-economic transformation, and as a result the socio-economic transformation proves not to be meaningful (does not last), except for the politically connected few.

The wheel cannot be reinvented successfully when it comes to the formula for inclusive economic success, and so socio-economic transformation.

Rapid growth of the private business sector is the key, as only it has the capacity to absorb all the unemployed in the long-term, but it is currently hamstrung in South Africa by weak demand and the gradual (actual and attempted) weakening of core institutions. This has depressed the business sector’s confidence to invest and employ, and increased its fear of failing through expanding and over-stretching in a weak economic environment.

Private sector businesses need to be able to ensure their continued existence as failure means job loss (increased unemployment), loss of capital and economic hardship for all involved.

Central bank independence and inflation targeting/low inflation are key underpinnings to high credit ratings, and remaining positives which have been identified for South Africa by the credit rating agencies. If the reserve bank is no longer independent, and is mandated by Parliament to cease inflation targeting and take up a new mandate, South Africa will very likely lose its remaining key investment grade credit ratings, which are already on a negative outlook (in line to fall into sub-investment grade).

A migration from investment to sub-investment grade for a sovereign invariably means higher borrowing costs for that country, particularly when a season of global risk wears off (these seasons are never permanent in the financial markets). Pressure is put on the whole maturity spectrum and interest rates in the short term rise too. While the reserve bank’s repurchase (or repo) rate will not escape this pressure, it will also be under pressure to rise following rand weakness and a resultant rise in inflation.

Scuttling inflation targeting wouldn’t remove the upwards pressure on financial market interest rates for a sub-investment grade sovereign, but it would remove the pressure on the repo rate for hikes from higher inflation.

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The advent of a blanket sub-investment grade sovereign rating would, we estimate, weaken the rand substantially and quickly towards the R19 a dollar mark. Such radical depreciation of the domestic currency would push up living costs for South Africans substantially, transforming their living costs as food price inflation is influenced by the exchange rate, as are transport costs.

Doing away with, or diluting the inflating targeting mandate would not stop the negative impact on living standards, and this socio-economic own goal would hurt the poor most.

* Annabel Bishop is Investec chief economist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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