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… which I entirely doubt will be made glorious summer by this sun of KZN when he gives his
5th nth State of the Nation Address this evening.
I am not, as my children might have said, very amped for this.
The only ray of light so far (I am watching on eNCA) was a brief interview with Floyd Shivambu who suggested it should be a ‘state of the resignation address’ … that if the President couldn’t make it to the Cabinet Lekgotla ‘then it would be best for him to just come here to explain that he is just too old and tired and to say goodbye’ – or words to that effect.
I thought I would use the time to publish some bits and pieces that I have sent to my clients over the last week.
The winter of our discontent – as the labour relations cycle meets a secular trend
Every year at this time South Africa is engulfed in strikes as annual wage agreements are traditionally renegotiated in several sectors of the economy. Every year analysts and journalists pontificate widely about the dire labour relations conditions – and the gloom deepens because this all takes place in winter.
Three factors this year are probably going to make the outlook more negative and threatening.
Firstly, the post national election winter has, since 1994, been characterised by spikes in service delivery protests. The causes of this phenomenon are not fully understood, but it is likely that:
- voters confronting a hostile winter and declining services levels – so soon after being promised the earth by politicians – are likely to be unsettled;
- local politicians who failed to make party lists begin mobilising factional support, perhaps to stand as candidates in 2016 local government elections, perhaps to discredit those whose positions they covet.
Secondly, the platinum strike is being driven by a number of ‘political’ factors – as discussed previously.
Thirdly Numsa is showing clear signs that its political aspirations are, as we predicted, going to drive deeper and more robust strikes and labour unrest. One sign is the growing violence as Numsa attempts to widen its action at the Ngqura container terminal in the Coega Industrial Development Zone in Port Elizabeth. The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (a Cosatu union) is opposing the Numsa strike and is calling for its members to stay at work at the Transnet facility. However, both Transnet and Satawu were quoted on radio (SAFM 20h00 news broadcast 08/06/2014) as decrying the burning of houses and cars of the workers who were at work. The SATAWU spokesperson warned that the situation had similar dynamics to those that were present in the platinum sector in 2012 – that this ‘is just like what happened with Amcu (same broadcast).
Additionally, Numsa is preparing to lead 220,000 workers out on strike from the metals and engineering sector next month. “The bargaining negotiations have spectacularly failed to produce the desired outcomes as expected by the thousands of our members in the sector,” spokesman Castro Ngobese said in a statement quoted in The Herald (5/06/2014). Numsa’s core demands includes a 15% pay rise and a one-year bargaining agreement, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (Seifsa, which represents 23 employer associations) has offered an inflation-linked increase of 6.1 percent.
This is the cycle meeting the secular trend, with each driving the other deeper than either would have been driven ordinarily. Numsa is in the process of breaking away from Cosatu and is beginning to vigorously compete with other Cosatu unions in overlapping sectors (container terminals, the big electricity generation projects and down and upstream mining and metallurgy operations). This is, at least partly, about Numsa preparing to set up a ‘left’ party to compete for votes in the future. Comparable (but not identical) dynamics are driving the platinum strike. A winter with ‘normally’ increased social and industrial unrest will probably become unusually bleak and unwelcoming in the months ahead. The impact on GDP growth and on the possibility of ratings downgrades are both important considerations.
Both Fitch and Standard & Poor made references on Friday (13/06/2014) to increased political risk when they changed their views on the South African government’s willingness and ability to pay the sovereign debt.
Fitch revised the outlook for South Africa to negative from stable and affirmed the country’s long-term foreign and local currency issuer default ratings at BBB and BBB+ respectively. S&P downgraded both the country’s local and foreign currency ratings by one notch from A- to BBB+ and BBB to BBB- respectively, but moved its outlook negative to stable. None of this is a catastrophe but of interest to us here is the central role of ‘politics’ in the given reasons for both Fitch’s and S&P’s changes.
Fitch says it most baldly in the press release announcing the change in outlook (my emphasis added):
“Following its election victory in May with 62% of the vote, the African National Congress government faces a challenging task to raise the country’s growth rate and improve social conditions, which has been made more difficult by the weaker growth performance and deteriorating trends in governance and corruption. This will require an acceleration of structural reforms, such as those set out in the comprehensive National Development Plan (NDP). In Fitch’s view, the track record of some key ministerial appointments and shortcomings in administrative capacity mean this is subject to downside risks.”
Fitch gives amongst the key drivers of its more negative outlook: “Increased strike activity, high wage demands and electricity constraints represent negative supply side shock.”
Standard and Poor’s downgrade was similarly motivated but adds some additional concerns:
“While we think that President Jacob Zuma’s newly elected administration will continue the policies of his first administration, which controlled fiscal expenditure and fostered broadly stable prices, we do not believe it will manage to undertake major labor or other economic reforms that will significantly boost GDP growth”.
My initial take on the new Cabinet is supportive of these motivations.
In addition both agencies made extensive reference to the negative industrial relations environment – and the negative impacts on GDP growth and government revenues. There is a significant political dimension driving industrial unrest – as I have argued above.
The validity of the actual ratings and ratings outlook of these agencies is much disputed but the issues they use to motivate their views are interesting because they (the agencies) are cautious; clinging to a sort of ‘average view’ of investors. So if political criticism makes its way into the text (as is the case in both these instances) we are obliged to consider that these may represent, or may come to represent, a general view in markets.
South Africa has a small open economy and liquid financial markets and the difference that policy makers can make to economic outcomes is limited. But even within those limitations too many political choices (certain cabinet appointments, corruption controls, delivery performance and the honest brokering of labour contestation) are either not helping or are actively negative.
No-one could have failed to notice the excoriating criticism of the credit rating agencies (CRAs) after their generalised failure to accurately assess the risks associated with the collateralised debt obligations allegedly because they were mostly issued by the CRAs biggest paying clients! However, it is the opposite with sovereigns: “It has also been suggested that the credit agencies are conflicted in assigning sovereign credit ratings since they have a political incentive to show they do not need stricter regulation by being overly critical in their assessment of governments they regulate.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_rating_agency (accessed 13h56 16/06/2014.
The National Directorate of Public Prosecutions
I dealt with this issue last week, but it is making bigger and more anxiety provoking headlines than ever.
The NDPP was drawn into the fight between Mbeki and Zuma and since that time has limped along to the rhythm of one or other faction aligned to competing interests within the ANC seizing or losing power in the institution. This is not a situation in which one could safely choose one set of ‘good guys’ and back them against another set of ‘bad guys’. The situation is complex but relates primarily to the on-going struggle to either ensure that certain senior political leaders are brought to justice or to ensure that they are not.
The NDPP is one of the most important institutions of the justice system, and without certainty and stability here it is impossible to have certainty about the operating environment for any business in the country. This is a serious problem and it appears to be getting worse under the current administration.
(This is a bit dated, but you might be interested in my rude remarks about the new minister.)
“Government is ready to wash its hands of the protracted wage strike by platinum mineworkers in Rustenburg” according to the Sunday Independent 08/06/2014. Mines minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi threatened to pull out his inter-ministerial task team if a settlement was not reached at the last scheduled government facilitated meeting, which is due to take place today.
In addition, a formal ANC statement delivered by Gwede Mantashe at a press conference in Luthuli House in Johannesburg last night after the ANC weekend lekgotla characterised the strike in a way that seemed to destroy the remote possibility that Ramatlhodi could have made a difference anyway:
“The articulation of AMCU position by white foreign nationals, signalling interest of the foreign forces in the distabilisation (sic) of our economy.
The direct participation of EFF in the negotiations, and thus collaboration with the foreign forces.
These two factors led the lekgotla into cautioning the Ministry of Mineral Resources in handling the facilitation with care. There were questions about the role of the state in workplace disputes where there are clear rules guiding it.”
This statement is interesting precisely because it borders on the bizarre
The ANC statement indicates shows just why the new ANC minister cannot be an honest or effective broker in the negotiation – and it is therefore unsurprising that he is preparing to withdraw his team. The ANC is compelled to believe that this strike is only not ‘negotiable’ in the normal manner because the real issues driving it are political and not about wages at all. The ANC might be correct about the strike being ‘political’ but the party itself is culpable of having politicised the strike by attempting to defend its Num ally against the vigorously growing Amcu, by alienating workers by characterising their union as ‘vigilantes’ and by the ‘Marikana massacre itself.’ s – There was never any real possibility of this government mediating between the parties or influencing the outcome.
Concerns about property rights
The South African Institute of Race Relations and AfriBusiness (AfriSake) have recently released warnings about property rights in South Africa. A proper assessment of these warning would require specialist legal opinions, but our own assumptions have long been that the South African Constitution provides adequate protections for private property (see here) and the ANC government is unlikely to risk fiddling with these principles.
However it seems to be a basic due diligence requirement to keep an eye on the risk – perhaps more so since Jacob Zuma spelled out at his Cabinet announcement (reiterating many recent ANC and SACP statements) that we are entering a “more radical” phase of economic transformation.
With this is mind, we reproduce the basic summary of legal concerns AfriBusiness and the South African Institute of Race Relations have raised in their research (note that below is a direct quote from the AfriBusiness statement linked above):
- The National Development Plan has as its aim the transfer of 20% of the agricultural land in a district to black recipients, at only 50% of the value as determined by the state (in terms of the Property Valuation Bill).
- The verdict of the Constitutional Court in April 2013 in the case of AgriSA v the Minister of Minerals and Energy distinguishes between “deprivation” and “expropriation”. After the verdict the state is able to dispossess and redistribute property, as long as the state does not assume ownership of the property and act (sic) only as custodian.
- The Green Paper on Land Reform aims a radical redesign of property rights, with inter alia a type of freehold on land which will drastically limit the rights of owners. Within this context a Land Management Commission is proposed, which will have discretionary powers regarding disputes over title deeds.
- The policy proposal by the Minister of Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinti, for “Strengthening the rights of workers working the land” aims to transfer 50% of the land to the workers, commensurate with their term of service. No compensation will be paid to the owner.
- The Expropriation Bill poses that expropriation may be used for the public interest and public goal. The Bill is not only applicable to land but will cover all types of property. Public interest and public goal are determined in an ad hoc manner and both have restitution as aim.
- The Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill allows state intervention in investment processes. The Bill explicitly provides for expropriation at less than market value. All in the name of so-called restitution. Any property used for commercial purposes is targeted by the Bill.
- The Infrastructure Development Bill aims to eliminate so-called inequalities in infrastructure. The Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission is granted the authority to expropriate in the public interest and for the public goal.
- The Spatial Planning and Management of Land Use Act aims at centralized planning of land ownership. It proposed so-called spatial justice by integrating low and high cost housing in residential developments.
- The Extension of the Security of Tenure Amendment Bill expands the rights of occupants and their dependents. Evictions are strictly controlled and the Amendment Bill means a significant loss in control over property.
- The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill creates further political and economic uncertainty regarding the future of property rights.
- The Rental Housing Amendment Bill proposes stricter regulation of the rental property market. Rental Tribunals will be established to hear disputes and will be able to determine increases in rent.
- The National Water Amendment Bill and Policy Review prohibits the trading of water rights and proposes a use-it-or-lose-it principle for water rights. Equality (including racial transformation) becomes the criterium (sic) for the allocation and re-allocation of water rights.
Consume that with the requisite amount of salt but keep an eye on the detail.
Sesotho loan word meaning court or community council meeting; used in the South African context a “lekgotla is a meeting called by government, Cabinet or the ANC to discuss strategy planning”. Wikipedia accessed 04h30 09/06/2014.
I am sometimes tempted to think of myself as a company analyst, with South Africa as my company, government as management and the currency and bonds as the share price
Company analysts make sell, hold or buy recommendations. Obviously a buy means the analyst believes the shares are cheap – in some difficult to determine absolute terms, but more likely in relation to appropriate peer or category comparisons.
If I was a company analyst, then what I might have been doing over the last while would have been writing a report changing my recommendation on South Africa from a hold to a sell.
Here is a bare-bones summary and ordering of that argument:
- There are two major cycles driving negative sentiment which are coinciding now (which they do every five years): the “strike season” and the lead up to the ANC’s National Conference ;
- Both these cycles are deeper and more traumatic that usual;
- The reasons the strikes are worse than usual is excellently addressed by Gavin Hartford of Esop Shop – here for a link to his paper at polity.org;
- Mangaung is “deeper” and more traumatic than Polokwane because there is more at stake (some ANC members realise that another seven years of Zuma could hurt the ANC and the country; and Zuma and his backers cannot afford to lose office, because their dealing is not yet wrapped up and because their man remains legally vulnerable to the original corruption allegations against him);
But the main reason these cycles are deeper than previously is they are meeting a structural or secular trend, which consists of (and this is very stripped down):
- Uncertain political stewardship from the top;
- Institutional weaknesses in political (and labour) organisation characterised by systemic cronyism, corruption and nepotism (which leads to violent competition for control), managerial incoherence, narrowing support base and falsely inflated membership figures;
- A significantly negative economic policy environment which might lower investment levels – e.g. fiscal uncertainty (because there is no way the ANC cannot keep increasing social grants and the public sector wage bill, which together are already more than half annual non-interest government spending) and a highly interventionist industrial policy (best exemplified in the SIMS document) which is one step away from ‘nationalisation by stealth” i.e. the effective deployment of private assets for public – or more narrowly governmental or even party – ends.
- Incompetent infrastructure build, disruptive labour relations and failed educations systems are constant, apparently irresolvable and narrowing bottlenecks in the economy;
- Institutional and administrative failures of government (in specific geographies and at specific levels of government) – with similar features to the second bullet referring to parties and labour unions;
- Failures of the collective bargaining system – and other institutions designed to manage and mediate conflicting interests in society;
- Growing social stresses around levels of inequality, unemployment, indebtedness and poverty – and unresolved racial overlays of the same.
Just listing that is faintly distressing … and you can imagine writing about it for weeks is not very uplifting.
But, I have, mid-stream, decided that I am not at all certain it is appropriate to take this relentlessly negative view.
Let’s go back to the political analyst/company analyst metaphor. Company analysts often suggest investors sell a share in a top quality, well managed and highly profitable company if it is too expensive.
They might also recommend a buy on a company in all kinds of trouble – but one that is cheap and has upside that the herd of sellers hasn’t spotted.
I cannot remember an SA political shock or flood of negative sentiment that did not represent a buying opportunity in our financial markets. Remember the sell-off of R54bn of SA resources companies after the leaking of a draft mining charter in 2002? It proposed forcing mining companies to immediately sell half their equity to black South Africans and spooked the market. The next few months was the chance of a life-time to buy excellent value company shares on the cheap.
Whether financial analysis adds real value to the investment process (or is just another bleed-off) is a matter of endless dispute. But here is why I would hesitate to call a sell on SA:
- I cannot honestly say we have more political risk than Russia and Turkey, for example;
- Where are the safe havens for investors, given the complex risks and problems in the global economy?
- I cannot be sure that the negative news flow is not already in the price – it would be a very financial-market-analyst-type error to rush around shouting sell, sell, sell just after the last savvy investor had finished selling and begun buying;
- My ‘negative secular trend’ is described as if it is inevitable – whereas there is much that can be decided and turned around by citizens, government and the ANC (despite my bleak outlook as to the likelihood of that happening, it must be in the mix as a possibility);
- The country has a number of inherent advantages: its natural resources, its growing domestic market, its proximity to the last great frontier market (Africa), its sophisticated financial system and complex infrastructure, its constitutional framework, judicial independence and stable democracy – to name just a few.
Now obviously that does not counter the negative “secular” or structural trend I describe above. But there is something of a “baking a cake” strategy about how I have motivated for the big underlying negative trend. What I mean by that is I have marshaled all (or as many as I can come up with) of the negative arguments in one place to bolster a particular conclusion: sell!
To make a cake one follows certain steps – mix ingredients, add energy and voilà: a nasty, stodgy, too sweet lump.
And that is a relatively simple object, with only a few requisite variables for its construction.
When we think about the future – especially when we write about it and propose to people how they should position themselves – the very first thing we should be is extremely tentative.
So I can’t, in good conscience, say sell South Africa.
I am unmistakably bleak about our politics and governance, but don’t take that as a signal to sell. I am quite likely being tossed on the waves of sentiment – following financial market indicators, rather than leading them.
My very negativity could as easily be the indicator to start buying; that all the bad news is already in the price.
The 2008 global debt crisis, Eyjafjallajökull (pronunciation fun here), Haiti and New Zealand Earthquake, China drought, Queensland floods the political crises in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disasters seem to prove that it is not the mundane everyday that shapes the world but rather high impact and extremely rare events.
The moment has rather given credence to Nicholas Taleb’s assertion in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable that outlier probabilities are what shape our world and not the day-to-day numbers.
The point about black swan events is that they are highly unpredictable. Sitting there in January we did have a sense that we were in the midst of shocks and the consequences of shocks: we were finally recovering from the mortgage linked debt crises and appeared be entering a new and threatening terrain associated with sovereign debt worries in Europe – and beyond.
That wasn’t all good, but it was part of the “known known” and we had a general sense of where to look for the things we didn’t know (the known unknowns – for a useful breakdown of Donald Rumsfeld’s discussion about certainty and unpredictability and Slavoj Žižek’s caustic reply see here.)
Two months later the world is a markedly different place and I have found it useful to use the Japanese earthquake and linked disasters as well as the political instability in MENA (Middle East North Africa) to ask the big and scary questions about South Africa.
Usefully, Moeletsi Mbeki has written an article predicting South Africa’s Tunisia Day for some time in about 2020.
Catch the Business Day article here and see my review of his book Architects of Poverty on which that Business Day article is extensively based here. (Afterthought note: the Business Day article is “extensively based” on Architects of Poverty not on my review.)
The long and the short of Mbeki’s argument is that the primary resource intensive phase of Chinese growth will be concluded by 2020 (and therefore the commodity supercycle will come to an end) and the ANC government will run out of money to keep paying the social grants bribe to the poorest South Africans – which in turn will lead to revolt and rebellion.
He takes it a lot further – instead of growing our competitive advantage while the commodity bonanza is with us, the ANC has instituted another system of bribes to its own leaders and supporters (Black Economic Empowerment) which consists of getting wodges of the non-essential parts of existing business and turning those into consumption fuel. Thus fat cat politicians and their families act as representatives of the cheap-labour and primary-resource-addicted conglomerates in exchange for the mess of pottage and extreme ostentatious consumption.
And waiting in their future, according to Mbeki’s argument, is a Tunisia style revolt.
So that’s the layout of the argument.
I think it is timely and provocative and interesting, but I do not think it is meant – or should be taken seriously – as a real prediction. It is polemic that warns about the excesses the new elite is indulging in.
I am in the middle of a road show where I ask the big questions about South Africa’s future stability.
I finish this evening and will then be in a position to summarise my own view; looking at the factors that lead towards instability and revolt and the factors that act to keep them at bay, asking how these balance in South Africa today.
The one thing the last few weeks have taught us is that the world is complex and interlinked in ways that make it extremely difficult to predict outcomes. With this proviso, I do not think we realistically can suggest that there are processes operative in our society that lead, in a linear fashion, to a Tunisia Day in the next ten years of our history … but it is a close call and I will examine some of that tonight and tomorrow morning.