Global Investing

South Africa may need pre-emptive rate strike

Should South Africa’s central bank — the SARB – strike first with an interest rate hike before being forced into it?  Gill Marcus and her team started their two-day policy meeting today and no doubt have been keeping an eye on happenings in Turkey, a place where a pre-emptive rate hike (instead of blowing billions of dollars in reserves) might have saved the day.

The SARB is very different from Turkey’s central bank in that it is generally less concerned about currency weakness due to the competitiveness boost a weak rand gives the domestic mining sector. This time things might be a bit different. The bank is battling not only anaemic growth but also rising inflation that may soon bust the upper end of its 3-6 percent target band thanks to a rand that has weakened 15  percent to the dollar this year.

Interest rates of 5 percent, moreover, look too low in today’s world of higher borrowing costs  – real interest rates in South Africa are already negative while 10-year yields are around 2.5 percent (1.5 percent in the United States). So any rise in inflation from here will leave the currency dangerously exposed.

Therefore staying behind the curve could prove a mistake, say Tradition Analytics:

The fear is that, by continuing to run very low interest rates on the premise that it is protecting domestic economic growth…the central bank is setting up the economy for less price stability, more uncertainty and higher variability in the rand outcome.  South Africa can ill-afford another blow-off in the rand…Dismissing the possibility that the SARB may be forced into a hike is dangerous as another bout of rand weakness could push the inflation rate above the 7% mark at which point the question then morphs into how much above the 6% level the SARB will tolerate.

Risks loom for South Africa’s bond rally

Investors are wondering how much longer the rally in South Africa’s local bond markets will last.

The market has received inflows of over $7.5 billion year-to-date, having benefited hugely from Citi’s April announcement that it would include South Africa in its elite World Government Bond Index (WGBI).  But like many other emerging markets, South Africa has also gained from international investors’ hunger for higher-yielding bonds. And the central bank’s surprise rate cut last week was the icing on the cake, sending 5-year yields plunging another 30 basis points.

There are some headwinds however. First positioning. Around a third of government bonds are already estimated to be in foreigners’ hands. Second, markets may be pricing in too much policy easing (Forward rate agreements are assigning a 77  percent probability of another 50 bps rate cut within the next six months).  That’s especially so given local wheat and maize prices have been hitting record highs in recent weeks.