A healthcare worker holds a vile containing Pfizer vaccine to be administered on elderly persons at the Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Germiston, on May 17, 2021.

Michele Spatari | AFP | Getty Images

South African economic activity has rebounded quicker than expected in recent months and the rand is the strongest-performing emerging market currency this year, but the country is racing to roll out Covid-19 vaccines as a third wave looms.

In its Financial Stability Review on Thursday, the South African Reserve Bank said the economy was continuing to rebound from a 2020 recession that saw gross domestic product contract by 7%, its steepest decline for over a century.

“Positive data releases, an uptick in global economic activity, robust international trade, elevated commodity prices and improved mobility” led NKC African Economics to upgrade its first-quarter GDP forecast to a 1.4% quarterly expansion, up from a previous forecast of a 3.3% contraction. NKC analysts now expect GDP to grow by 3.1% in 2021.

The industrial sector, particularly mining and manufacturing, has demonstrated positive growth rates on the back of increased global demand and high commodity prices 

“Google Mobility data, which has proven to be a good indicator of economic activity, has improved to its best levels since the coronavirus shock occurred,” NKC senior economist Pieter du Preez highlighted in a note Wednesday.

Third wave risks

The major ratings agencies have all reaffirmed their ratings for South Africa over the past week, but Fitch noted that although the fiscal accounts surprised to the upside on both the fourth quarter of 2020 and first quarter of 2021, the country still faces “substantial risks to debt stabilization.”

S&P also highlighted structural complaints, a lack of economic reforms and a sluggish vaccination drive as hindrances to medium-term growth potential.

Despite the positive surprises thus far, the SARB warned the outlook remains highly dependent on the pace of the vaccine rollout and possible resurgence of the virus, suggesting that the pandemic could last into 2022.

To date, the country has reported a total of over 1.6 million Covid cases, and more than 56,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Now, South Africa’s seven-day rolling average of new daily cases is rising, up from its nadir of around 780 in early April to over 3,700 at the end of last week.

Given the scale of the previous hit to economic activity, the government appears reluctant to reimpose stringent virus restrictions, though President Cyril Ramaphosa met with the country’s coronavirus taskforce this week to discuss possible strategies.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visits the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) treatment facilities at the NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa April 24, 2020.

Jerome Delay | Reuters

South Africa has begun working toward its goal to vaccinate 5 million senior citizens by the end of June and 67% of its 60 million population by February. The country has purchased 30 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech inoculation and ordered 31 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, both of which have proven effective against the dominant variant circulating in the country.

The central bank also noted the risks posed by an abrupt shift in global financial conditions and the consistently “high and rising level of public debt” in South Africa.

NKC’s du Preez said the impending third wave of Covid-19 will disrupt the economic recovery process. Meanwhile, the government is embroiled in protracted negotiations with unions over its commitment to freezing public sector wages, which du Preez said is also negative for the economic outlook.

“The National Treasury would either be forced to reprioritize expenditure or over-spend on an already large fiscal deficit,” he said. 

“Reprioritizing expenditure would entail reducing funding for critically important sectors in the economy or reducing very much needed infrastructure upgrades.”

The Treasury therefore finds itself “between a rock and a hard place,” du Preez added, since overspending could send out a signal that authorities are not serious about fiscal consolidation.

Roaring rand

Any sign of fading commitment to this austerity drive would exert pressure on the rand, Capital Economics senior emerging markets economist Jason Tuvey highlighted in a recent note.

The rand has soared on the back of higher metals prices, and was trading up at around 13.76 to the dollar by Monday morning. 

However, Capital Economics analysts said in a note Thursday that “the star performance of the rand is unlikely to last as we expect most commodity prices to fall back, and that U.S. long-term yields will begin to rise again, putting renewed pressure on EM currencies.”

“In addition, we think the SARB will not tighten policy as quickly as investors now discount, and that concerns about South Africa’s fiscal situation will eventually resurface.”

Capital Economics anticipates that the rand will weaken to around 15.5 to the dollar by the end of the year.


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