Daily Maverick

Rand surprises on the upside, while its EM peers plunge

- By Mfuneko Toyana

South Africa’s rand, an erratic but often telling yardstick to gauge whether the country is headed for basket case or breadbaske­t status, has shot the lights out in recent weeks, rallying to a two-month best while its emerging market peers fell, with investors taking a surprising­ly sunny view of recent developmen­ts.

The rand began 2021 around R15/$. The third wave of coronaviru­s infections, the July riots and a Cabinet reshuffle later, the currency enters the summer near R14/$, uncharacte­ristically immune to local and internatio­nal shocks, and likely to end the year on the front foot, barring any big surprises when the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) is delivered in November.

Old Mutual chief economist Johann Els sees the rand ending 2021 at R14/$, citing the improved political and economic situation. PwC has it at R14.50. It is BNP Paribas’s pick among emerging market units.

Besides looking good on trading screens and giving politician­s a positive chart to point to in what has been an annus horribilis, the stronger currency bodes well for consumer inflation, especially since South Africa imports fuel in dollars, as well as other finished manufactur­ed products needed in a range of economic activities.

A strong rand also puts a moderate sheen on public debt figures. SA broke the emergency glass and borrowed $4.2-billion (R70-billion) from the Internatio­nal Monetary Fund last year. Repayments in greenbacks commence in 2023, so the country needs to build up its store of foreign reserves long before then, and a stronger rand makes that a little easier.

To that end, Els sees South Africa’s gross debt-to-GDP ratio, a key measure for the health of the economy, stabilisin­g faster than predicted in the February budget.

“Debt-to-GDP ratio could stabilise at around 83% – lower than the Feb budget’s 88.9% and the MTBPS’s 95.3%,” said Els.

The recent outperform­ance of the current account and trade surpluses, driven by the strong commodity demand, also supports ongoing rand strength. Exports of platinum group metals, gold and coal have fattened the current account and netted the Treasury extra tax revenues, easing the fiscal vice grip. The second-quarter current account surplus was its largest since the 1980s, at R343-billion, or 5.6% of GDP.

“Although quite historical, it was nonetheles­s instructiv­e. It offered investors some perspectiv­e as to just how strongly the tailwinds to the ZAR and other commodity currencies are blowing, and why the ZAR might appreciate despite all the difficulti­es South Africa is facing at the moment,” said economists at ETM Analytics.

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