SA appears ill-prepared for end of Fed liquidity era

Comment on this story

We spent four days last week in South Africa presenting and stress testing our views on its vulnerabilities and policy response mechanisms to the US Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE) punchbowl being removed. We had numerous meetings at the Reserve Bank, the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry, local banks, rating agencies, investment funds and investment consultants, the ANC, political strategists, think-tanks, a handful of parastatals and various representatives from the mining sector and labour.

We found a central bank still constrained by stagflationary risks but ready to act on a break-out of risks, a Treasury that understands the risks but perhaps should be assigning higher probabilities to tail risks and others in the government and civil society that still do not understand the risks that are on South Africa’s doorstep.

Put simply the government reaction to a risk repricing (and certainly a sudden stop tail risk) will probably be lagging, while the central bank is unlikely to intervene except if there is a more dramatic deterioration in the situation. We found universal negative sentiment from those involved in the mining sector – ranging from bearishness to outright apocalyptic.

Our baseline does not really change after our visit except to skew our view of probabilities on rate hikes at risk of starting earlier in the normalisation cycle, if there is a more dramatic and idiosyncratic repricing of risk (perhaps to even later this year). But then the risks to our baseline are for rate hikes to start later, if such a shock occurs in a less dramatic form.

This parallels the additional downside risks to growth next year in particular (from our current baseline of 3 percent). That said, the key take away is a full understanding now of the reaction function of policymakers to the outlook probability distribution and the complicated subtleties of what is going on in the mining sector.

We presented a view for discussion of a post-Fed QE world, where domestic idiosyncrasies expose it to the strong likelihood of a risk repricing and sluggish growth. This is a scenario that would not cause mass outflows, but where a lack of inflows was a sufficiently serious risk baseline, and one where there was still not enough of a shock for the ANC to change its centre of gravity between a National Development Plan-style policy on the one hand and vested interests on the other.

The view gained a lot of traction among those outside the policymaker circles that we met, though some even described this as too benign. In policymaker circles, however, we received a mixed response.

The Reserve Bank is actively considering risk and shock scenarios with deep concerns at the possible fallout for South Africa from the withdrawal of Fed liquidity. There is a separate though clearly parallel and related deep concern at the lack of government manoeuvring of policy to address the structural and idiosyncratic issues in the economy that are holding back growth and development.

For this reason we can say that the governor in particular still has the capacity to act in an independent and credible manner, even under severe political pressure.

The monetary policy committee (MPC) and staff view seems to be based on a world view that is too bullish on global growth in our view though this is offset by their increasingly bearish view on domestic growth.

This offsets the increasing upside risks they are seeing to the consumer price index (CPI), not only from foreign exchange weakness, but also the risk of changes in the pricing structure of retailers to be more sensitive to exchange rate changes. We think the MPC remains broadly constrained and indeed as growth gets weaker, so too are the upside risks to the CPI growing and the balance can be maintained. That said, it is clear that the key break-out risk here is for a hike in their view on an unanchoring of the inflation forecast at the long end, which could be caused by a more parabolic move higher in the dollar/rand.

We doubt the MPC has the ability to undertake a major campaign of hikes, at least, not with any speed. However, a one-off (or two) might be possible. But there seems to be some realisation that real policy rates will need to be in positive territory. Part of the issue is that the inflation forecast (and indeed the current account too) remains far too mean-reverting and this drives the currency view in particular. That said, the central bank does look at other scenarios that encapsulate our views adequately. We are happy that the MPC places sufficient weight on these, however.

We think intervention remains a no-go area from management, though it stresses more strongly than perhaps in the past that this is not ideological, but based on both experience and practicalities.

The Treasury understands the risks and the various possibilities. There is some (very long running) frustration with the rest of the government on the lack of economic impetus, however, not quite the crisis type language that the bank uses.

It has two key downside scenarios – the first is what we would call a risk repricing (now our baseline), whereby debt service costs move up markedly under a risk repricing and steeper yield curve, the second is a liquidity event where there are difficulties issuing. We think, however, that the Treasury is putting too low a probability on both these scenarios. Interestingly, we think the asset and liability management team attaches a lower probability on these events than other areas of the Treasury.

The political level of the ministry we worry about is still too much hankering after the “post-austerity” world that was being espoused a month ago.

There are contingent policy moves ready under both scenarios. Under the risk repricing, inter-year spending adjustments will be made behind the scenes to slow infrastructure and line ministry spending, together with other discretionary spending commitments.

Under a liquidity event more drastic cutbacks would be made, including intra-budget legislative orders to end spending on public sector jobs schemes, a gross hiring freeze and stalling infrastructure projects. Under a more long-lasting shock, revenue measures could even be possible.

The Treasury is a very different beast from other countries’ equivalents, though. There seems to be no attempt at pre-emptive policy actions, or even at clearer public relations on this issue to assuage the markets and rating agencies’ concerns. Part of this may be due to political pressure and the fact that it is already constraining real expenditure growth at such a low level.

The level of worry by the medium-term budget policy statements (additional policy, as we outline above, seems unlikely before this publicly) will be

reflected in what happens to expenditure growth going forward – a risk repricing scenario will see real growth drop by around a further 1 percentage point, while a liquidity event will see a much sharper drop to perhaps around flat. Cash draw down and further write down of the contingency reserve would also occur.

The forthcoming revenue commission seems to have morphed from what we understand it was originally going to be (based on past discussions with those in the government and the ANC). We believed that it would be a more drastic reappraisal of how to increase developmental state spending through restructuring revenue and also to address, if there were, the correct redistributional aspects in the economy.

However, it seems the commission is not being set up with an adventurous remit. This still seems very risky, though – especially the wider political pressures on it to widen its remit and undertake things like recommending a mining tax. We will have to wait and see if it morphs once again.

The ever-delayed, long-run budget framework report seems to be almost ready, but is still delayed by politics, partly over cabinet worries that it pins them down too much. This report may provide some calming influence on the market over fiscal restraint over the medium run when it is published.

We found little push in the government (even really in the Treasury) to make any attempts at boosting short-run growth or more meaningfully improving long-run potential growth beyond the current policy path. Many saw a weak rand and a need for further rate cuts as a panacea.

We think the government seems to be in the wrong place in this area. As such many locals find it difficult to really see where the meaningful and sustainable sources of growth in the economy are. A response of policymakers is that the economy is growing and foreign direct investment flowing in. Such a view, however, fails to see that there is a vast underperformance of “potential potential” on both counts. In a way there is a failure of optimism.

There is very deep concern from unions, policymakers and those in the mining sector over the state of the outlook for the sector. It seems clear that the government is pinning down a line on no job losses before the election, but equally the sector is adamant that these job losses are inevitable eventually.

The real concern is the deep damage done in suppressing investment levels by not allowing cost-cutting that will hold back the sector further over the longer run. Most we spoke with struggled to see any real plan forming at the Department for Mineral Resources or elsewhere in the government to provide any optimism.

Labour experts we met said the legal case for the National Union of Mineworkers’ deregistration at Lonmin was clear and that the government had very little room to manoeuvre except through delays on this front. But equally many thought it was difficult to see the government allowing real deregistration occurring and hence there have been more expectations of legal changes coming in the short term.

We found universal concern at the state of the Department of Mineral Resources and a slide in confidence in the minister. This reflects our worsening experiences of trying to interact with the department and our view that the minister’s underlying positive and investor-friendly attitudes are a lower priority to political considerations.

Broadly, parastatals are aware of the impending risks of debt funding their businesses in a post-Fed QE world, particularly with the failure of the Transnet auction last week. Instead we think liquidity events for them will manifest in a stalling of infrastructure spending that in most cases could sufficiently create enough balance sheet space.

We think a real sense of fear seems to be present in the ANC at the moment on the election next year, and while we have not seen any ANC polling data, anecdotal evidence suggests that such polls show meaningful (if not decisive) support loss. It seems very much challenged by the presence of Agang – a body with impeccable Struggle credentials, but totally tangential policy and public relations operational space.

 

Peter Attard Montalto is a director and emerging market economist at Nomura International covering South Africa and emerging Europe.


sign up
 
 

Comment Guidelines



  1. Please read our comment guidelines.
  2. Login and register, if you haven’ t already.
  3. Write your comment in the block below and click (Post As)
  4. Has a comment offended you? Hover your mouse over the comment and wait until a small triangle appears on the right-hand side. Click triangle () and select "Flag as inappropriate". Our moderators will take action if need be.