Busy, busy … and everything is slower; the brain and hands struggle with what they did with alacrity before the December holiday.

Anyway …

It is becoming clear that South African Investment Risk is going to be all about the New Growth Path (NGP) this year. So picking up from where I left off from the two pieces I wrote last year about the NGP, here and here – I did promise a third and, I suppose, this is it.

Zuma’s 2010

I get irritated by those those interminable news features reviewing or predicting the calender year as if it was a natural unit of history into which discreet trends neatly fit themselves and await their unpacking by news organisations short of December and January copy.

But then that means I failed to point out one of the most interesting features of 2010, namely the peculiar arc described by Jacob Zuma’s fortunes over the course of last year.

Remember how badly the year started for him?

He stumbled from crisis to crisis and the consequences of his sexual behaviour (consequences we are going to feel again this year) began to make even his most fervent backers nervous.

The second phase was the World Cup and the apparent surrendering of his position to Blatter and his merry band of soccer thieves. That phase ended with the gathering woes of the public sector strike and a serious challenge from “the right” at the NGC.

That is the moment he turned it all around, to everyone’s surprise – mine included.

His administration managed to negotiate an end to the public sector strike and secure Cosatu’s aid to stop the political challenge from the right (fronted by Julius Malema, but emanating from higher up the ANC/New Elite food chain – I cover that – exhaustingly if not exhaustively –  here.)

As I discuss in the previous link, it is my contention that he secured the victory by making policy concessions to the left and Cosatu (which are essentially contained within the NGP document – clearly not acceding to the left’s full agenda but going some of the way) and this sets much of the tone for a discussion about political risk in 2011.

The New Growth Path (NGP)

The New Growth Path (NGP) document was produced by the Department of Economic Development (23/11/2010), an institution that came into being as a direct reward to Cosatu for having backed Jacob Zuma’s rise to power at Polokwane and which is headed by a minister who hails from the heart of Cosatu’s leadership.

The origins of the NGP might be closely linked to Cosatu, but the fact that it is a real attempt to address unemployment that has been formulated in government (i.e. outside of the priority Cosatu objective of protecting the interests of the already employed) means it is full of suggestions that Cosatu has found itself unable to support.

But Cosatu’s doctrinaire and sectarian self-interest based criticism aside (see those here), this proposal is far closer to the policies of Cosatu than any macro and micro economic framework that has emanated from the ANC and government since 1996 – and this is because the document forms part of the payback to the trade union movement and herein is contained some of the risks associated with the policy.

The Activist Developmental State

The NGP is more than just a statement committing government to various broad economic interventions designed to achieve job rich economic growth. It calls for a fundamentally new approach to the administration of all aspects the economy and is highly interventionist and proposes that the the Department of Economic Development plays the lead role.

One of the most interesting critiques of the policy comes from the Chief Economist of the Sanlam group

It wants to regulate wages and salaries in the labour market, prices in the goods market, the rate of exchange in the currency market, interest rates in the money and capital markets, and dividend policies and therefore by extension equity prices. It even hints at rent control in its desire to reduce rentals for small businesses in shopping centres. (The New Growth Path – Does it really take us forward? – Jac Laubscher, Sanlam Group Economist – 01/12/2010 catch the full text of that interesting critique here).

The premise is that markets left to their own devises will not solve the problems, particularly of unemployment. Unemployment (as well as the full range of social ills in South Africa), in this paradigm (the paradigm of the NGP, not the paradigm of Sanlam or Jac Laubscher!), can only be addressed by vigorous state intervention.

The conventional or orthodox view in economics tends, in principle, to be wary of over regulation of the economy and markets by even the most efficient, vigorous and rigorous state or government agency. The potential for misallocation of resources, bureaucratic drag, distortions and inefficiencies (and therefore reduced growth) must be significantly increased when a new, untested and under-resourced agency nested in a national administration known for high levels of dysfunction is charged with leading interventions at every level into the economy.

Looser monetary, tighter fiscal policy

The stability and predictability of macro-economic policy has been one the great successes of post-1994 policy making in South Africa.

The NGP makes constant reference to achieving a “more competitive” currency – through the mechanism of “a looser monetary policy and a more restrictive fiscal policy backed by microeconomic measures to contain inflationary pressures and enhance competitiveness” (page 16 , The New Growth path – The framework – 23/11/2010).

Thus this policy holds out the hope/promise of stimulating the manufacturing sector (by making exports more competitive) but proposes to help control the danger of inflation inherent in this strategy by reducing state expenditure.

I do not expect government to either change the inflation target for the SARB or its general mandate “to protect the value of the currency in the interest of balanced and sustainable economic growth” (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 1996/1996/2009-04-17/Chapter 13 – Finance), but the assumption must be – at least – that there will be downward pressure on the currency.

Labour markets and wages – the source of the conflict with Cosatu

What is fascinating about the NGP is that it calls for wage restraint and is, inevitably, starting a serious discussion in government and the ANC about the conflict between “quality jobs” and any jobs at all. Charged with creating employment, the NGP is inevitably going to come into conflict with the labour regime established after 1995 that so profoundly strengthened the interest of workers inside the system against the interests of the unemployed outside the system.

Conclusion

2011 is going to be the year that government finally shifts beyond the set of macro-economic policies enshrined in the Growth, Employment and Redistribution document that defined the Mbeki leadership – and so angered Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC’s own left wing.

Political analysis for this year is going to have a strong economic focus. We will have the national local government elections (the rumour I hear is May 18) and the never ending cycle of tenderpreneurial abuse by party and government figures.

All of that will continue to provide grist to our mill, but the big story for this year is all about government economic policy. Will they go too far for the financial markets and other investors? Can a government, any government, do anything to fundamentally alter the content and direction of economic growth? Can the Ruling Alliance hold itself together if the ANC grasps the nettle of the labour market? These are the big questions for the year.

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