Foreigners sell rand assets at record pace as Eskom woes mount

Foreigners are ditching South African assets at the fastest pace on record as concern mounts that the government will lose its last investment-grade rating.

Overseas investors have sold a net $4.8bn of South African equities and bonds in 2019, the most on a year-to-date basis in data going back to 1998, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Outflows, particularly from fixed-income securities, have accelerated since the start of June as ratings companies and banks turned more bearish about South Africa’s fiscal outlook.

The rand weakened 2.5% against the dollar last week, its worst performance since February, after Moody’s Investors Service warned that the government’s plan to double financial support for state power firm Eskom was "credit negative". Moody’s is the only major ratings company that still grades South African debt higher than junk.

Fitch Ratings followed on Friday by cutting its outlook for Africa’s most industrialised economy to negative. JPMorgan said the same day that a rally in the rand since the start of June was more to do with a supportive global environment than improvements in conditions locally.

"We now believe levels are stretched enough to enter outright rand shorts," JPMorgan analysts including London-based Anezka Christovova and Robert Habib in New York said in a note. "South Africa’s fundamental picture remains very challenging with a ballooning fiscal deficit and structurally low growth."

Despite the outflows, demand among local investors is helping to prop up South African assets. The country’s main stock index has risen almost 11% in dollar terms this year, compared with the MSCI Emerging Market Index’s 8.2% gain. And while local bonds have sold off in the past week, they have still handed investors a dollar return of 7.4% in 2019.

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