Economic turmoil may be calmed by the US



Lee MwitiLee Mwiti

THE pointed talking-up of China as an alternative to the West has been trendy in an Africa dazzled by Beijing’s flashing overtures, reminiscent of a man planning to abandon his wife of donkey’s years for a new found love.

It has been a whirlwind relationship — bilateral trade has exploded in the last decade to an estimated $222 billion last year (thrice that with the US), while more than a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa’s exports head for the belly of the dragon.

The US has in recent years sought to remind Africa of when the vows mattered, with its first ever US-Africa leaders’ summit last year leading to the “homecoming” of President Barack Obama last month.

And as the markets have shown this year, sometimes it pays not to spurn completely, with the US poised to send a signal to traders which could have a significant impact on a broader African economy reeling from events largely outside its control.

China’s sudden devaluation of its currency this month spooked investors, causing a global market rout that also seen the value of African assets plunge following a sharply reduced appetite for emerging market risk.

African currencies are taking a pummelling, with half of the world’s worst performing currencies on Monday coming from the region, according to financial data company Bloomberg. This builds on a losing streak that has left central banks around the continent to watch gloomily the weak outcome of their aggressive monetary policy tightening actions.

There have been a few contrarians — Botswana early this month reduced its benchmark lending rate, but the southern African country also simultaneously pared back economic growth forecasts for this year by nearly half.

South Africa’s currency this week reached a record low against the US dollar, joining countries like Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana and Angola that have seen their local units depreciate to uncharted lows.

Bourses have not been spared either — Nigeria’s main stock market index shed nearly nine percent in July, while South Africa’s and Mauritius’ remained largely flat, according to data from the African Securities Exchanges Association.

With commodities at a 16-year low, Africa exporters have borne the brunt, but the currency losses have seen even importers like Uganda and Kenya see hoped for gains evaporate.

With seemingly no end in sight to the volatility, emerging markets have been driven almost to despair, highlighting just how integrated financial markets are, and leaving smaller players like Africa at their mercy. But help may come from unlikely quarters, or if you think about it, one that has always been there.

Analysts say African markets could rally again if the US Federal Reserve delays a much-anticipated decision to raise its funds rate for the first time in years, a move that could come as early as next month. But given the market storms raging all around, the US regulator could decide to stay its hand, as it seeks to keep its finger on the global market pulse. It could be much like a stay of execution for developing countries because risk-weary investors may not penalise them just yet.

But the signs that it would be a tough year for Africa have been apparent for months, as a Chinese economy running out of steam cut back on its previously voracious demands for the continent’s raw materials. This has led to the increasingly frantic attempts by Beijing to jumpstart its economy.

In addition to devaluing its currency, the country’s central bank on Tuesday reduced its one-year lending rate for the fifth time in less than a year, in addition to cutting the amount on money it expects Chinese banks to set aside for the third time this year, helping to momentarily stem the week-long global market haemorrhage.

The turmoil has caught up with African economies, which are now queuing up to cut previously bullish forecasts on economic growth. It will not be surprising if the International Monetary Fund (IMF) further cuts growth forecasts for the region from the current 4.5 percent, from last year’s projection of five percent. The World Bank in June cut the region’s growth forecast to 4.2 percent.

Uganda has this week said its economic growth in the year to June 2016 could fall to five percent from an initial 5.8 percent forecast, after its central bank raised interest rates to combat a weaker currency. Four increases of the country’s main interest rate this year have failed to prop up the shilling, which has fallen by a quarter against the dollar this year.

The country follows in the path of Botswana which last week cut its 2015 growth forecast by nearly half, as demand for its mainstay diamonds weakened. It now expects to see expansion at 2.6 percent, from a February projection of 4.9 percent, the finance minister said. Diamonds account for more than 70 percent of Botswana’s export revenue.

The country also expects to post a budget deficit of 4 billion pula ($394 million), compared to an earlier expected surplus of 1.2 billion, as civil service sector wages rose, and a drought continues to ravage the region.

In South Africa, data released on Tuesday showed that the economy had pulled back in the third quarter, on the back of a steeply-falling currency, crippling load shedding, and slumping commodity prices, fuelling fears of a recession.

Nigeria’s second quarter growth has come in at 2.35 percent, down from 3.96 percent last year, as the oil price crash hit home, one of a raft of bad news for Africa’s largest economy.

Struggling Zimbabwe has also halved growth forecasts from 3.2 percent to 1.5 percent, with Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa last month blaming drought and a slowdown in its key mining industry. But the crunch has been enough for President Robert Mugabe to wave the white flag, admitting that western re-engagement in his country’s economy after 15 years in which the veteran daily denounced the west, was vital.

In June, Zambia Finance minister Alexander Chikwanda cut his country’s growth forecast for this year to 5.8 percent  from a projected 7 percent , as its fiscal deficit ballooned from the targeted 8.5 billion kwacha to reach 20 billion kwacha ($2.5 billion) last month.

Neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s largest producer of copper and cobalt, has also revised down its growth projections to 9.2 percent  from 10.3 percent  last month, blaming falling metal prices and power shortages.

Tanzania has also reported depressed first quarter growth—6.5 percent  compared to 8.5 percent  last year, as mining, a key contributor of foreign exchange, fell 18 percentage points to 0.6 percent  in the three-month period to March. The IMF has also trimmed growth forecasts for Kenya from 6.9 percent  to a still-healthy 6.5 percent , but did not offer explicit reasons.

With the real prospect that its economy, which has been riding on a tailwind of Chinese trade and investment, could decrease if the Asian economy does not pick up, it may be time for Africa to reassure old partners that it did not really mean to remove the fly on its forehead by using a machete. – M&G




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