Rand losing its hubcaps
The wheels are coming off the rally in the rand. The currency has swung to being the emerging world's worst performer this month, from best in the third quarter, after the move to prosecute Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan sparked an international sell-off of South African assets.
The roller-coaster ride is testament to the depth of concern among investors over the battle between Gordhan and supporters of President Jacob Zuma for control of the nation's purse strings.
It also highlights the difficulty of assessing political risk, with some investors seeing recent events as a tipping point, while others regard them as noise that will blow over.
"The rand today is very, very hard to trade," said Guillaume Tresca, a Paris-based senior emerging-market strategist at Credit Agricole.
"On a daily basis, it's a nightmare. You can have a rally for one or two weeks and it will perform very strongly, and all of a sudden you have a headline on the political risk and you can lose all your money in five minutes."
In April, as risks to South Africa's credit ratings rose and Zuma faced an impeachment vote, Credit Agricole forecast that the rand would weaken to beyond 16 to the dollar. Instead, it rallied to 13.2008 in early August.
The rand gained 7.3% in the three months ended September, the most among 24 emerging-market currencies. It ended last week 4.2% weaker, lagging behind its peers.
Foreigners dumped R14.3-billion of SA's bonds and stocks last week amid concern that Gordhan may lose his job. The currency plunged as much as 4.3% on October 11 after he was summoned to court on fraud charges. The next day it gained as much as 2.5% as the head prosecutor said the charges could be reviewed.
The rand is the world's most-traded currency relative to GDP, with global volumes averaging about $51-billion every day, figures from the Bank for International Settlements show.
The currency will weaken to 17 to the dollar by year-end after South Africa's credit rating is cut to junk, said Peter Attard Montalto, an economist at Nomura in London, who says markets are underestimating the political risks.
"The volatility in forecasts just shows us it's all ultimately down to personality politics, which is the worst sort and the hardest to factor in and forecast around," he said.
Not everyone is bearish on the rand. Standard Chartered said last week the "political noise" is an opportunity to build "long" rand positions. Societe Generale last week upgraded the country's debt to overweight.
Francois Botha, who helps oversee R15.5-billion of assets at Novare Investments in Cape Town, agrees that the rand's volatility makes it wise to be cautious. Investors who moved funds offshore after Zuma fired Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene in December "got really hurt", he said.
"It's not the best move to react now, now that the currency has already been blown out," Botha said. "We're slightly more cautious because we've seen since the start of the year how the currency can react and it can appreciate quite a bit, and you don't want to be caught on the wrong side of that."