Herewith a note I wrote a week ago for a South African client concerning a recent whip around the London fund management industry

Foreign fund managers perceptions of South African political risk

I recently had an opportunity to interact with a few London-based global emerging market fund managers. These were generally from long-only equity funds, but included a smattering of everything else.

The main lessons I learned were

  • not to be overwhelmed by the negative news flow;
  • always think in relative terms – a negative and obsessive focus on South Africa is meaningless without realistic peer comparisons.

This was brought home to me again as the weekend news of the brutal killing of Eugene Terre’Blanche hit the local and international press. The media focus alone seemed to suggest that this was a potentially destabilising event. However the story has quickly descended into the squalid domestic tale it really is, and the over-the-top alarmism should be faintly embarrassing to those who trumpeted it over the holiday weekend.

Here are the main questions I raised in London and the main responses I received*:

The news explosion around Jacob Zuma’s latest romantic and similar engagements does not drive capital flows

This point did not need emphasising with the fund managers I saw. If anything they were faintly puzzled as to why I would bother to raise it. For them the emerging market universe has much colourful (and sometimes ugly) personal behaviour by the political leadership and other powerful members of society. Zuma’s polygamy and latest love child are way down the list of “transgressions” in that universe.

Conflict over economic policy making the investment and operating environment difficult

The point I was making was that Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech differed in important ways from both the DTI’s Rob Davies’ Industrial Policy Action Plan II and Ebrahim Patel’s Two Year Strategic Plan. My issue with this was that Jacob Zuma had not settled important policy conflicts within his cabinet.

The different emphases could be summarised as follows:

  • Pravin Gordhan supported fiscal restraint, inflation targeting, a segmented labour market and a competitive and unprotected manufacturing sector – and for this he was heavily criticised by Cosatu.
  • The policies espoused in IPAP 2 and the Two Year Strategic Plan from the Department of Economic Development implicitly called for monetary easing, a weaker currency and a vigorous programme of interventions into the domestic economy through the use of tariffs and taxes – policies strongly supported by Cosatu.

Several of the fund managers that I interacted with had recently (within the last few months) met with all the ministers concerned either as part of a marketing tour led by Jacob Zuma or while in South Africa themselves. The detailed interactions with all these departments had convinced them that the policies of government were the policies as espoused by Pravin Gordhan and further that the more activist policies from Patel and Davies were not uncommon in emerging markets and at least did not include new capital controls.

I am not convinced the policy confusion is ‘investment neutral’ – although I do not think is catastrophic. Cosatu and the SACP clearly believe they have a chance to set policy – including monetary and industrial policy – through the DTI and the new Department of Economic Development. Thus Jacob Zuma seems to be clearer and more decisive about these issues in front of foreign fund managers than he ever is in front of a domestic audience. He will reap high resistance and anger from Cosatu and “the left” when they realise they have been lied to again. I think it is clear we are seeing the first signs of this realisation – in, for example, the threatened strikes during the World Cup against Eskom increases.

Julius Malema and the Nationalisation of the Mines

Julius Malema provokes a lot of reaction wherever he is discussed. Not many fund managers take him seriously and again it is because they have met and dealt with senior government and party officials who have spoken of Malema with patronising indulgence and a touch of exasperation.

Susan Shabangu, Minister of Mining, has done good work in assuring fund managers throughout the world that there is no possibility that the South African government will consider the nationalisation of mines as a serious policy option; and I came across several people who had met her and been convinced by her assurances.

Cronyism and tenderpreneurial flair – the threat to service delivery, stability, the functioning of the parastatals

Continuing on the theme of Jacob Zuma’s inability to solve the big conflicts in his government I argued that cronyism, nepotism and tender abuse are:

  • important contributing reasons for the poor functioning of the State Owned Enterprises – the Eskom example reveals that enrichment agendas in tendering and the appointment of senior personnel damages the utility’s ability to do the job;
  • key to understanding the failures of local government and hence the ongoing violence of the service delivery protests.

There were few fund managers I met who disagreed with this assessment, although some, yet again, argued that in the universe that includes Russia, the Middle East and Brazil, South Africa stands out less than we would imagine.

The World Cup and the waiting Hangover

It is perverse to argue that the downside of the World Cup includes:

  • it could become the focus terrorist attacks;
  • it could be targeted by organised labour and taxi operators to strengthen their hand against government or employers;
  • it will inevitably entail a let-down or ‘hangover” period.

This would be a little like arguing that the downside of life is death and that it should therefore be avoided.

I never met a fund manager in London, or elsewhere for that matter, who disagreed.


*Please note that this is a subjective process, over determined by my own interpretation and by a selection processes out of my control. Any real collation of “the views” of fund managers must theoretically translate into their holdings and the prices at which they buy and sell.

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