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Thu Jul 28 08:48:41 CAT 2016

Being of good cheer this festive season is out of the question

David Shapiro | 04 January, 2016 00:06
David Shapiro. File photo
Image by: SUPPLIED

If you are not despairing about the prospects for the economy, you should be.

The rand, a trusty barometer of investor sentiment, has lurched to new lows over the past week, sending shares in JSE-listed companies that depend largely on domestic trade for profits reeling.

In just two days the JSE's usually steadfast bank index crashed 20%. And in dollar terms South Africans are 25% poorer than they were a year ago.

If things weren't bad enough, President Jacob Zuma's decision to replace his experienced and admired finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, with a relative outsider - less than a week after two influential rating agencies raised concerns about South Africa's feeble growth rate, poor reform agenda and increasing debt load - was utter lunacy.

His decision exposed him as a high-handed authoritarian leader who, aside from putting his personal agenda ahead of the welfare of his people, is patently ignorant of affairs economic, principally the gravity of the possibility of a debt downgrading.

His sudden U-turn four days later, bowing to pressure from within his cabinet, is even more troubling, uncovering an administration divided from its leader but not purposeful enough to replace him.

Neither does the reappointment of Pravin Gordhan suddenly melt our problems away. If anything, the flip-flopping at the helm must raise further doubts with foreign investors about the credibility of the personalities who run this country.

Populists often protest about the importance attached to stooping to the demands of foreign investors without grasping that South Africa spends more than it earns and, consequently, depends on these outsiders to fill the void. Their funds help the financing of state expenditure on education, health, defence and a collection of other government institutions, including social grants to 16million needy families.

Besides battering the rand, the flight of investors from our debt market pushed interest rates on 10-year government money to 10.5% at one point, from 8.5% a week ago, putting our sovereign bonds on a par with those of Venezuela and Turkey.

Yields recovered somewhat on short covering, but traders remain cautious, still wary of the circumstances that triggered the recent market turmoil.

Even before Zuma's pronouncements, business conditions were fragile, undermined by collapsing commodity prices, a severe drought, structural shortcomings and a misfiring global economy.

But the rand's unexpected volatility will surely drive consumer prices through the roof, putting undue pressure on trading margins while increasing interest rates at both ends of the yield curve. Failing investor confidence will further strain corporate profits.

The crisis won't be wasted, though. Public opinion is rapidly mounting against the president and it is only a matter of time before the ruling party is compelled to oust him. With the stakes high for him and his cabal, he won't go without a scrap. Neither is it guaranteed that his successors will instigate the political and economic reforms the nation needs to appease its critics.

This weekend marks the beginning of the holiday season. It's a time when we put our worries behind us, reflect on the past and build the strength to face the future.

Thoughts of a new leader might provide the tonic we need to lift our spirits, and the prospect might eventually steady financial markets, but it won't completely eradicate the cost of years of maladministration and the huge challenge we all face to put South Africa back on a winning course.

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