Monday, September 29, 2008

Finance world bitchslaps ANC

It is safe to say that there is one thing the ANC cares most about and that is "da muney". It is no coincidence that the most efficient government department is revenue collection -SARS. It runs like a finely tuned Ferrari.

Clem Sunter talks about SARS and its model of efficiency being spread to other departments.

And truth be told, if crime was spelt "money" then South Africa would be a very different place.

Last week's brouhaha with Trevor Manuel underscored how fragile the currency and the economy is - and how insignificant we are. The eyes of investors are open and in the world of finance there is no place for sentimental crap. They will pull the rug from under you in a heartbeat.

And so it was that the haste with which the ANC acted to reassure the markets showed that they understood that their bottomless private piggy bank is very fragile and like a pack of cards will tumble if it takes one misstep.

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If the new ANC leadership had scant respect for investors' sentiments, it got a rude awakening last week.

Investors pounded the country's financial markets in the wake of a surprise announcement that Trevor Manuel, the longest-serving finance minister in the world, was among the 14 cabinet ministers and deputies that had quit government following the unceremonious ousting of former president Thabo Mbeki.

What made the markets jittery was that Manuel had promised the ANC bigwigs he would stay in his job in spite of Mbeki's downfall, the man he had worked closely with for almost a decade.

So when news of Manuel's unwanted departure caught the markets off guard on Tuesday, they went haywire. The rand, bonds and shares on the JSE nose-dived.

The rand dropped more than 2.5% in 30 minutes and bonds and the blue-chip JSE Securities Exchange Top-40 plunged more than 4%.

The markets have since clawed their way back and are likely to recover even further after Manuel was retained as the finance minister in the new-look cabinet of President Kgalema Motlanthe.

The markets' reaction showed the ANC that a radical change to the country's economic policies and key personnel in ministries like finance would be unwelcome.

Under Manuel South Africa has achieved a lot economically for the past 12 years, earning the respect of local and international investors.

Outstanding reputation
His conservative fiscal policies are credited with putting the government on a sound financial footing by cutting the country's massive debt inherited from the National Party.

He also systematically wiped out the country's budget deficit and this year registered a R14.3bn surplus, the first in South Africa's modern history.

The end result of Manuel's policies is that South Africa has become bankable as its credit worthiness has continuously improved overtime, with all the major rating agencies - Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch - consistently upgrading its credit rating. This enabled the government to borrow at cheaper rates to finance expenditure not adequately covered by tax revenues.

Anyone with such an outstanding reputation is not easily replaceable in a young democracy such as South Africa. Tertius Smith, the managing director of Fitch Ratings in South Africa, says financial markets love Manuel because he has always delivered the goods.

"Manuel's reputation is born of good results. He is one of the most successful finance ministers in the world. In a typical country, one would think institutions and policies are so strong it does not matter who the personality in control is.

"Since South Africa is a young democracy, personalities matter and so people like Tito Mboweni (Reserve Bank governor) and Manuel matter. If they were to be replaced, investors would be nervous because they do not know whether the economic policies will be changed," Smith argues.

Dawie Roodt, chief economist at Efficient Group, says although the markets sent a strong message of how they feel about Manuel, he does not expect him to last long in an ANC government considered to be too left-leaning for comfort.

Has his detractors
"In the short term he will survive but not in the long term because the policies that he stands for are likely to change. In any event, he is seen as an Mbeki guy," says Roodt.

Although Manuel's career has made him powerful within government, he has his detractors.

There are some who regard his tight grip on the country's purse strings as anti-developmental and uncaring to the poor. This is despite figures showing that he has committed more money to the poor, education and health since taking over as finance minister in 1996.

However, The SA Communist Party and labour federation Cosatu, have been critical of his conservative fiscal stance and some of the policies he has supported, specifically the growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) strategy and inflation targeting policy.

They have consistently said these policies have failed to address high unemployment and lift the majority of South Africans out of poverty.

"It is unfortunate that people who gamble on the stock market should be influenced by the role of one individual. The ANC is bigger than one individual," he says.

"Our main concern is not individuals. We want the ANC to implement Polokwane resolutions. We want to see a marked shift towards a developmental state, where the state is redirecting investment and adopting policies that eradicate unemployment and poverty."

Some of Manuel's colleagues in government also feel he has taken his thriftiness and insistence that government departments submit sound business plans to the National Treasury before funds are released too far.

While the ANC has said it will not change its policies after the elections next year, which it is expected to win, its uncertain if Manuel will be as powerful as he was under Mbeki or if he will be a lame-duck finance minister.

1 Opinion(s):

Censorbugbear said...

Aids-infected soldiers are mutinous and dangerous - yet the South African military is not allowed to reject new HIV-infected recruits, the Pretoria High Court has recently ruled.

Is the South African military becoming an AIDS-hospice? The Pretoria High Court recently ordered the SA military to hire HIV-infected applicants; a top psychiatrist warns that HIV-infected soldiers are a mutinous danger to themselves and their units...

An estimated 40% of the 55,000 SA military are already infected with AIDS-virus... so now they must take on even more -- how more insane can it still get in South Africa?