Professor Brian Kantor has had a long academic career at the University of Cape Town where he served as a Lecturer and Professor of Economics and as Dean of the Faculty of Commerce.

Brian is currently the Chief Strategist and Economist at Investec Wealth and Investment (IW&I) in South Africa. WellsFaber partner with IW&I’s team of direct equity portfolio managers as one of the providers of managed equity portfolios both locally and offshore for our clients. The following article, recently penned by Prof Kantor, provides an interesting view on the connection between the Rand, Interest Rates and the resulting challenges faced by the MPC .

The members of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Reserve Bank will be even more perturbed about the behaviour of the rand than the rest of us. However they have had (and will have) as little influence over its direction as you or me. The link between short term interest rates that they control and the USD/ZAR exchange rate is shown in the chart below. As may be seen, they began a rate hiking cycle in January 2014 and since then, the higher the rates, the weaker the rand has been. It is very hard to argue that the rand would have been any weaker than it now is had interest rates remained on hold over this period.

There is no good reason to believe that this relationship between interest rates and the rand will be any more predictable in the year ahead than it has been. What is predictable is the impact of interest rates on spending and so GDP growth. Higher interest rates have served to slow the economy down over the past 24 months. Still higher rates will mean even slower growth – without necessarily supporting the rand – and perhaps might even encourage further rand weakness. The slower the growth, the less reason foreign and domestic owners or managers of capital have to invest in South Africa. Growth expected leads the capital flows that determine the value of the rand.

The sooner the members of the MPC fully recognise these facts of SA economic life, the less likely they are to damage the growth prospects of the economy. The exchange value of the rand and so the inflation rate and the expectation of inflation (that take their cue from the exchange rate, for good reasons also incorporated into the Reserve Bank forecasts of inflation) is beyond their influence. Raising interest rates at a time like this because it may support the rand makes no sense at all. The rand may or may not strengthen – for altogether other reasons – especially sentiment about the investment case for emerging markets generally. More global risk tolerance will mean a stronger rand and vice versa as usual. But the rand has not behaved as usual since President Jacob Zuma intervened so dramatically in SA’s fiscal affairs last month. Without such intervention, the rand, given global risk appetites, would have been much closer to 14 to the US dollar than 17. Zuma’s actions caused financial markets to raise significantly the doubts it has about SA’s ability and willingness to fund its government expenditure without printing money – and so causing inflation.

Hence not only did the rand weaken dramatically, but the expected value of the rand weakened even further. The spread between RSA and US Treasury bond yields, that indicate the compensation for expected rand weakness in the bond market, widened with rand weakness. A weaker rand has resulted in an even weaker rand to come- expected to lose value vs the US dollar at an over 7% p.a rate on average over the next 10 years.

Furthermore the risks of default on SA’s dollar denominated debt widened significantly – enough to take SA dollar bond yields into junk territory. SA dollar-denominated interest rates have risen ahead of equivalent junk-rated Russian debt but are still below those on even more vulnerable Brazilian foreign currency denominated debt.

The newly appointed Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, has committed himself and the country to fiscal sustainability. The market place should believe him, in my judgment. But the market as yet is not giving him the benefit of their doubts. They are going to take a great deal of convincing that SA can live within its means by sticking to the strict limits on government spending that it has set for itself. The role the Reserve Bank can play in this is a limited one. Monetary policy settings will not make much of a difference to perceptions of fiscal policy. They can make a difference to the state of the economy with their interest rate settings. Slower growth makes the task of funding the fiscal deficits even more difficult. They will not be doing Gordhan or you and me any favours hiking interest rates.