Johannesburg — South Africa’s inclusion among the BRICS countries was a pretty big deal. The country made an economic alliance with large, growing economies in China, Brazil, Russia and India. But late last year, it was dropped into another list, the Fragile Five – a group of countries that some economists say are far too reliant on foreign investment.
The “Fragile Five” – Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, India and South Africa – are a group of countries singled out by a Morgan Stanley analyst last year.
Goolam Ballim is the chief economist with Standard Bank in South Africa.
“The one thing that these economies have in common is twin deficits. By twin deficits I mean a joint current account deficit and a fiscal deficit that is of size. Now, a current account deficit represents a nation that is importing much more than it is exporting, and a fiscal deficit represents a situation where the government is spending in excess of its revenues or its income,” said Ballim.
South Africa has a current account deficit of around 6 percent of GDP and a fiscal deficit of 4 percent of GDP.
Those two numbers have made investors wary, Ballim says, and in response the South African rand has fallen from around 8 to the U.S. dollar in mid-2012 to around 11 to the dollar in early 2014.
When the U.S. Federal Reserve recently said it would begin tapering its monthly stimulus, it caused a stir among economists and investors, worried that the Fragile Five markets might get hit hard by less liquidity in the world economy.
Economist Azar Jammine says people have been a bit quick to sound the alarm on that issue. Still, he agrees South Africa has many issues to resolve.
“The fact is that there is a fundamental problem in South Africa. Business is not sufficiently productive and the country’s far too dependent on imports and not producing enough itself, and exports have remained very much geared towards the mineral base of the country, rather than being diversified,” said Jammine.
Magnus Heystek is an investment strategist with South Africa-based Brenthurst Wealth Management. He says South Africa’s twin deficits are affecting investors’ confidence in the country.
“I think we’ve already seen signs that global investors have already reduced their bond exposure to South Africa quite significantly in the last quarter of year and the first month of this year,” said Heystek.
Heystek says South Africa hasn’t done enough to address these issues, and is not moving quickly enough to expand manufacturing and capitalize on the weak rand.
Ballim says the country is taking some steps in the right direction. On Wednesday, South Africa’s finance ministry said it would focus on managing expenditures more prudently to reduce the fiscal deficit, from 4 percent of GDP to 2.5 percent in three years.