Rand may slump by 30% as Treasury battle heats up

Johannesburg - In a month when a record wave of money headed to emerging markets, South African bonds managed to lose money for foreign investors.

Things could get much worse, with some analysts predicting the rand may slump by as much as 30% against the dollar, further undercutting profits for international buyers as a struggle over control of the country’s purse strings deepens. Political risks could see the country’s debt downgraded to junk this year, according to Goldman Sachs.

The rand was nearly 1% down at R14.44/$ on Tuesday at 08:30, while it was around 0.5% down against the pound (R18.88) and the euro (R16.12).

Rand-denominated government bonds have lost 2.9% this month in dollar terms, the worst performance out of 31 sovereigns monitored by Bloomberg and one of only three to post losses.

Bond yields climbed by the most since December in the past week as the rand tumbled on concern Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s job is on the line as his feud with allies of President Jacob Zuma widens.

The slump comes at a time when money managers are reallocating funds to emerging markets at a record pace.

“If Gordhan goes it’s an indication that the government is happy for us to get downgraded,” said Rashaad Tayob, portfolio manager at Abax Investments in Cape Town, who predicts yields would rise as much as 200 basis points if Gordhan were replaced by a candidate less trusted by investors.

“A non-credible candidate could bring several years of economic instability to the country and in that type of environment you need very significant risk premiums to be holding South African bonds.”

Emerging-market debt funds received a record $18.7bn in July and $4.2bn in the first half of August, according to EPFR Global. JPMorgan Chase & Co expects the inflows to reach $40bn in 2016.

Even so, yields on South African benchmark government bonds due December 2026 soared 56 basis points in the past week to 9.08%, twice the average yield of local-currency emerging-market debt monitored by Bloomberg indices.

WATCH: The implications if Gordhan is removed from office

Gordhan staved off a credit downgrade this year by pledging to curb spending and debt at a time when Zuma’s allies in the ruling African National Congress are calling for a “reprioritisation” of the budget following setbacks in local government elections. The finance minister was ordered last week to report to the Hawks who are investigating alleged irregularities at the South African Revenue Service, which he headed from 1999 to 2009. He refused, saying he had done nothing wrong.

“The underlying issue is what is the political agenda driving this attack on the minister?” Colin Coleman, partner and head of Goldman Sachs in South Africa, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Monday. “If the minister is arrested or charged, you will see the rand buckle further. It will be very badly taken by the rating agencies and will probably result in South Africa being downgraded.”

Populist approach

Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings affirmed South Africa’s long-term foreign currency rating at BBB-, the lowest investment grade, in June and said the government must take decisive measures to bolster growth, quell policy uncertainty and end political turmoil to avoid a downgrade. There is a risk that the ANC could turn to a more populist approach to address rising voter dissatisfaction, Fitch said after the August 3 local government vote.

The likelihood of a downgrade to non-investment grade by S&P before year-end has increased to 80%, from 70% last month, according to Societe Generale. S&P has a negative outlook on South Africa and is reviewing its assessment in December. Societe Generale lost 2.9% shorting the dollar in favour of the rand since August 19, before the Gordhan probe unexpectedly sent the rand into a tailspin. The currency was little changed at R14.3670 per dollar on Monday.

“Rand-denominated debt would bear the brunt of pain from rating downgrades,” Roxana Hulea and Phoenix Kalen, emerging market strategists at Societe Generale, said in a note. “In addition to inevitably higher funding costs, a downgrade to non-investment grade would weigh on South Africa’s ability to attract capital flows.”

'Rand could hit R30 per dollar'

If Gordhan is replaced by someone not as committed to fiscal discipline, the rand would probably weaken about 30% to R19 per dollar, according to Annabel Bishop, an economist at Investec. In the extreme-case scenario - in which successive credit downgrades push borrowing costs up, leading to a default - the rand could hit R30 per dollar, she said in a note on August 26.

“It is perceptions of the future creditworthiness of a country’s finances that count for the rating agencies, and so it is the current conduct of a country’s government that is used to form judgment on this future creditworthiness,” Bishop said.

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