‘Ramaphoria’ Evaporates as Reality Sets In for South Africa

(Bloomberg) -- If there were any doubts that the euphoria following Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as president of South Africa has worn off, this week’s slump in the rand has removed them.

The currency has plunged to a level last seen when Jacob Zuma was still in charge, having retreated from a three-year high against the dollar amid a toxic cocktail of negative economic news, political risks and falling commodity prices. An investor retreat from emerging markets has accelerated its slide of almost 10 percent against the dollar this month.

‘Ramaphoria’ Evaporates as Reality Sets In for South Africa

When Ramaphosa took over as president in February, he promised to stimulate growth and attract investment, fix the finances of state-owned enterprises, and root out the corruption that marked Zuma’s administration. Investors took note: the rand surged to a three-year high in February and borrowing costs fell as inflows into the country’s bonds and stocks surged. The mood was dubbed “Ramaphoria.” There’s no sign of it now.

“It seemed there were exaggerated hopes for quick changes in politics and economy,” said Elisabeth Andreae, a Frankfurt-based economist at Commerzbank AG. “These were reflected in the strong rand at the beginning of the year. At an early stage we warned that it would take longer to fix the deep problems South Africa and the economy are facing.”

Things started changing in April as rising U.S. interest rates and a strengthening dollar began to sap demand for emerging-market assets. While crises in Argentina, Turkey and Russia provided the context, homegrown problems fueled the retreat.

The economy contracted in the first quarter as the current-account deficit widened, highlighting the country’s vulnerability to capital outflows. Mining production, once the engine of the economy, has slumped, and manufacturing and consumer spending have struggled to pick up the slack. A widening budget gap has limited Ramaphosa’s ability to boost infrastructure and social spending.

“It is kind of bad timing for Cyril Ramaphosa, especially with the elections due next spring, that the global setting with escalating trade disputes and the Turkey crisis is not supportive for South Africa,” said Andreae. “This means there are even more stones in the way to revive the economy. A key would be stronger growth; however, with the current risk-off mood it is even more difficult to convince investors to put their money in the economy.”

‘Ramaphoria’ Evaporates as Reality Sets In for South Africa

The rand dropped 2.2 percent on Wednesday, and traded little changed at 14.5715 as of 2:55 p.m. Thursday in Johannesburg. It hit 15.5517 on Monday, the weakest since June 2016. The cost of insuring the country’s debt against default for five years using credit-default swaps climbed 15 basis points to 220, the highest in more than a month. Moody’s Investors Service rates South Africa’s foreign and local debt at Baa3, the lowest investment level.

Adding to the weakness, Naspers Ltd., which accounts for 18 percent of the benchmark stock index, tumbled after China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd., in which it owns a 31 percent stake, missed earnings estimates.

Populist Faction

The tipping point came on Aug. 1, when Ramaphosa, bending to the populist faction of his party, announced that he would seek a constitutional amendment to allow expropriation of land without compensation. The move could undermine property rights and deter investment, some analysts say. Investors are looking north to neighboring Zimbabwe, where a program of violent land seizures beginning in the late 1990s wrecked the economy.

Gwede Mantashe, chairman of the governing African National Congress, stoked the concerns on Wednesday when he proposed that white farmers should be forced to turn over excess land to the government, handing traders another excuse to abandon the rand on a day that both Moody’s and Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago sounded warnings on the economy.

‘Ramaphoria’ Evaporates as Reality Sets In for South Africa

“Markets are sensitive to anything perceived to be ‘Zimbabwe-fication’ on the land-reform front,” said Henrik Gullberg, executive director of emerging-market strategy at Nomura International Plc. The fact that Mantashe was just repeating proposals that had been made before “doesn’t really matter, especially in an environment of broader U.S. dollar strength,” he said.

The next big test for the rand may be the mid-term budget review scheduled for October, where Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene will have to convince investors that the government can maintain spending discipline in the run-up to 2019 elections.

If management of the national economy is anywhere like what’s happening locally, they’d have reason to be worried.

The Emfuleni municipality, which is part of South Africa’s richest province, had all of its vehicles repossessed by Bidvest Group Ltd., civil society group the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse said Wednesday. Emfuleni lost the vehicles for its traffic, water, electricity and fire departments.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.