Fiscal cliff vertigo eclipses Greek relief on markets

Finally Greece is to get another tranche of bailout funds to keep the wolf from the door. Bloomberg reported yesterday that the country would get a E34.4 billion (R297.7bn) loan disbursement “after German Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed the country’s debt-reduction efforts”.

The decision by the euro zone finance ministers yesterday was almost a non-event for financial markets, which remained focused on fears of the US fiscal cliff – the expiry of tax breaks and additional spending cuts, starting next month.

Citi analyst Tina Fordham expressed “moderate optimism” that there would be an agreement by year end. Although the positions of Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner were far apart, she said, neither side had ruled out a deal or hardened their position enough to prevent one.

Barclays analyst Larry Kantor predicted the stand-off would be resolved “within the next couple of months. We think the most likely outcome will be another ‘kick the can down the road’ agreement that will avoid massive near-term spending cuts and tax increases – even though it will not produce a comprehensive deficit reduction plan that puts the US on a fiscally sustainable path – and be constructive for markets and growth.”

Central banks, meanwhile, continue to provide monetary support, including through record low interest rates.

Barclays commented: “This is forcing investors to move gradually out along the risk curve to achieve reasonable returns, and has resulted in a strong performance of stocks relative to bonds.” This explains a change in the pattern of global portfolio flows to South Africa. Until recently, non-residents were net sellers of equity, preferring bonds. Local shares are now benefiting from strong purchases from abroad.

Mozambique

Domestic and regional airline Comair is restoring its service to Maputo after both it and 1time, the now suspended low-cost airline, withdrew from the route last year.

Both gave it up, despite being welcomed by Mozambique’s tourism industry, because of a combination of high airport charges and a limit imposed on the number of passengers to protect the market share of the Mozambican national airline. This made profitability impossible.

News of Comair’s decision made one hope that the Mozambican government had realised it was shooting its tourism industry in the foot and either relaxed the limit on passenger numbers or reduced the level of its airport taxes, which makes it almost equal in price to a flight to Europe.

But, according to Comair marketing manager Shaun Pozyn, these drawbacks have not been removed. Comair has decided to revive the route because of strong demand from overseas visitors, particularly business travellers, for connecting flights from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport to the rest of Africa.

Comair had previously flown to Maputo from Lanseria, but the revived service will operate from OR Tambo. Pozyn said Comair had discovered that 40 percent of business travellers from overseas who flew into Johannesburg, now caught connecting flights to other parts of Africa, where economies are strengthening.

One can, however, hope that more countries will realise the damage they are inflicting on their tourism and other industries by seeing airlines as a milch cow to be taxed heavily. Otherwise, as the International Air Transport Association has warned, hopes for huge growth in airline travel in Africa and corresponding growth in tourism jobs may be disappointed.

Engineers

Engineers are losing confidence that the government will deliver on its proposed infrastructure expenditure programme, according to a new survey conducted by financial services provider PPS.

The survey reveals that confidence among engineers dropped 9 percentage points to only 39 percent in the third quarter. This is not totally surprising in light of the deterioration in both consumer and business confidence and concerns expressed by construction companies recently about the lack of new major infrastructure tenders being issued.

It also ties in with comments by the SA Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors last month, that the government’s R844 billion budget for infrastructure over three years had already been allocated, with much of the spending allocated to Transnet and Eskom for items such as boilers or locomotives rather than civil engineering projects.

The results of the PPS survey also echo the reality of the National Planning Commission’s recent admission that there had been a 30 percent decline in public sector spending since 2008, which must have had an impact on the engineering sector.

However, the survey results show confidence levels of engineers about the future of their profession over the next five years were unchanged at 83 percent, while 78 percent indicated they would encourage their children to enter the profession.

These high levels of confidence about the future are obviously indicative of anticipated future work activity related to the government’s R4 trillion strategic infrastructure expenditure plan over the next 10 years. What is of concern in this regard is that there is already a shortage of engineers in the country and with an infrastructure expenditure plan of the magnitude envisaged, even more qualified and skilled engineers will be required.

If the engineering profession is struggling now because of the lack of major projects, it is easy to understand why fewer people may consider joining the industry. This is reflected in the results of the survey through the decline of 9 percentage points to 32 percent, of engineers who believe the skills shortage in the profession will be adequately addressed by the government in the short to medium term.

Edited by Peter DeIonno. With contributions from Ethel Hazelhurst, Audrey D’Angelo and Roy Cokayne.


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