Dryblower on South Africa's emerging market capital flight

PEOPLE in. Money out. In a very simplistic way that’s how Dryblower sees the state of South Africa as the cream of the mining world gathers for the annual Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town – and vast quantities of cash flee the country.
Dryblower on South Africa's emerging market capital flight Dryblower on South Africa's emerging market capital flight Dryblower on South Africa's emerging market capital flight Dryblower on South Africa's emerging market capital flight Dryblower on South Africa's emerging market capital flight


Staff Reporter

The lure of the city and the conference is easy to understand. Cape Town is a unique and beautiful city.

The flight of capital, while seeming to be a direct contradiction, is equally easy to understand.

South Africa as an investment destination is losing its attraction.

The conference first, because it is the first major gathering of the mining industry for 2014 and will help set the tone for the rest of the year.

Until a few weeks ago there was a degree of optimism that the next 12 months would confirm the strength of the global economic recovery which would, in turn, lead to increased demand for minerals and metals, lifeblood of the South African economy.

That might still be the case if the turmoil evident in the money markets is simply another round of jitters associated with a slowdown in US government money creation and uncertainty about Chinese demand for commodities.

If the flight of capital from emerging markets, such as South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia and Argentina, is indeed the action of speculators shifting their hot money from one market to another then stability should quickly return.

However, there is a risk that the money flows, which saw an estimated $US12 billion ($A13.7 billion) withdrawn from emerging markets last week – including up to $2 billion from South Africa, could trigger a more significant crisis.

Central bankers in South Africa and Turkey have responded to the money drain by increasing official interest rates, a move that will do little to boost confidence in either country where foreign exchange reserves have dropped to dangerously low levels and the value of their currencies has collapsed.

What seems to be happening is that capital markets are re-pricing risk on a country-by-country basis in the same way that banks price risk when dealing with individual customers, based on an assessment of their ability to repay their debts, or the trouble they might cause during the life of the loan.

Countries and people with a high capacity to service their debts and not default get the cheapest money – and as much as they need.

Countries and people with a poor credit rating or an unstable outlook are forced to pay more for money – and get short rations.

South Africa, despite its world-class mining sector and some of the world’s most appealing tourist attractions, is slipping further down the list of credit-worthy countries and could be heading for a crisis that has been 20 years in the making.

Bankers and investors are worried that while South Africa has made much of its political liberation after the end of the apartheid era it has achieved little in economic or human development terms, which could spell serious trouble ahead.

Swapping a white elite for a black elite, a subject Dryblower has written about in the past, is a problem that even the most zealous black-rights campaigner is starting to recognise as a major problem – not that it is likely to be addressed openly at this week’s Cape Town mining conference.

Government speakers at Mining Indaba – and there will be far too many of them – will repeat the same story of a country (and a continent) in transition and a place that deserves ongoing international support because of the historic wrongs committed by past regimes.

The locals will lap it up but the international audience will yawn at the predictability of what’s about to be said while being too polite to ask the difficult question, which goes like this: “when will you stop living in the past and get on with the future?”

It’s a tough question but 20 years after the late Nelson Mandela led South Africa to political freedom, it’s a question that has numbers attached, such as an appalling rate of unemployment, a disgraceful life expectancy of just 53.4 years and a ranking of 121 on the Human Development Index compiled by the United Nations, lower even than Mongolia and Indonesia, where life expectancy is 68.8 years and 69.8 years respectively.

At some point, perhaps in this year’s national election, the majority of South Africa’s population is going to ask its political leaders this doozy of a question: “Exactly what have you achieved in the past 20 years?”

Outsiders, including international delegates at Mining Indaba, cannot be so direct in questioning their hosts nor can they vote in the election but they can vote with their money – and that’s what they’re doing by shipping as much of it out of the country as fast as they can.