Tuesday, May 3, 2016


This article first appeared in the Business Times section of The Sunday Times on 17 April 2016.

The FNB/BER consumer confidence index for the first quarter of this year revealed that despite a slight improvement from the last quarter of 2015, South African consumers continue to have the lowest confidence in their own financial position and that of the economy since the global financial crisis and recession in 2008 and 2009.

This is not surprising given the decision this week by the IMF to cut our 2016 economic growth forecast for the second time in three months, all the way down to 0.6%.

In its latest World Economic Report, the fund gives "lower export prices, elevated policy uncertainty, and tighter monetary and fiscal policy" as key reasons.

Low commodity prices have been with us for a while now, and nothing suggests a recovery any time soon. Tighter monetary policy is also likely to be with us for at least another year as interest rates keep rising thanks to overheating inflation.

At least one South African bank expects the Reserve Bank to increase rates by 25 basis points during each of the three monetary policy committee meetings between now and January next year. That would take the prime rate to 11.25%.

Add to the mix inflation and an expected increase in the bread price, and it's no wonder consumers' confidence is at record lows.

However, if you delve deeper you discover that not all consumers share this lack of confidence.

Apparently, "all consumers are equal, but some consumers are more equal than others", to borrow from George Orwell's dystopian novel Animal Farm.

The consumer confidence index notes that "most consumers still believe that South Africa's economic prospects will deteriorate further over the next year and that it is not a good time to buy durable goods, but a small majority is hopeful that their own household finances will improve".

This "small majority" oxymoron should remind the millions of South Africans who earn a "comfortable living" wage just how fortunate they are, and how much more thankful they ought to be.

The index concludes that "the resilience in the rating of financial positions is driven largely by higher-income households. In fact, over the last five years - a period characterised by generally low consumer confidence - high-income households have been the most confident.

"This has mainly been due to high-income households persistently reporting the highest levels of confidence in their personal financial prospects, even though their rating of South Africa's economic prospects has been low.

"By contrast, low-income households have recorded the lowest levels of overall confidence and the lowest levels of confidence with respect to the outlook for the economy and their own finances. This points to pervasive income inequality."

By the way, the index categorises high-income households as those earning more than R14,000 a month.

So how does that work? How is it that two groups of people in the same country, in the same economy, at the same time, reflect similar low confidence in macroeconomic prospects but are on opposite ends when it comes to their personal finances?

I think the answer lies in the fact that while they share the same geography, the two groups are not in the same economy. One group is in an economy of comfort and, at times, sheer abundance; the other is in an economy of constant scarcity.

In the extreme, tough economic times may mean less abundance for the rich, whereas for the poor they could spell disaster.

When interest rates are hiked, the rich restructure their balance sheets, settle expensive debt and avoid large credit purchases. This is why the "time to buy durable goods" sub-index of the consumer confidence index slumped to its lowest level since the 2008-2009 recession.

Interest rates have increased by an entire percentage point in the past four months, and this has clearly led to consumers waiting it out when it comes to big purchases, especially since most are funded by debt, whether unsecured or asset-based.

For the majority of low-income households, interest rate hikes don't lead to a downgrading of lifestyle or purchasing decisions, mainly because there is hardly any room to make such adjustments.

When your life is about survival and tough economic times hit, there is nothing for you to cut or spend less on. When all your earnings barely pay for the roof over your head, food in your stomach and the clothes on your and your children's backs, it doesn't really matter what some Lesetja Kganyago fellow has to say about something called a repo rate on a Thursday afternoon.

Your life essentially stays the same. Nothing changes.

In a way, that's why the Reserve Bank's mandate of trying to keep inflation in check is so important. I say "trying", because the target range of 3% to 6% is some distance from the 7% recorded in February.

High inflation hurts the poor much more than high interest rates do. Not because they don't have debt, but because they have no room to manoeuvre on a low income that is entirely spent on survival.

So the next time you feel like complaining about your lot in life, think about the millions of South Africans who can't even afford to have the conversation.

No comments:

Post a Comment