Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS
Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS

AS the World Bank released its new global economic prospects report this week warning of the risk of a "perfect storm", the world’s financial markets were buffeted violently. And the analogy is quite appropriate for SA.

As global markets tumbled this week on new fears about China’s growth outlook and the yuan, the rand dropped the most among 31 emerging market and major currencies tracked by Bloomberg, briefly touching a record low of R16.20/$.

The rand is now more than a third down on its R11.56/$ average for January last year. Global factors including a strong dollar and an ailing China, have this week hit emerging markets ultra-hard. But the rand has been particularly vulnerable — for reasons of SA’s own making.

It’s worth remembering the rand had fallen to R14.50/$ even before President Jacob Zuma fired then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene a month ago. That shocked markets — and pretty much everyone else — causing the rand to plummet and bond yields to rocket.

But perceptions of SA were already shaky, with Fitch Ratings cutting its sovereign credit rating by one notch early last month and its two competitors — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s — both putting their ratings for the country on negative outlook. All expressed concerns about SA’s very weak economic growth rate and the possibility that the country might not deliver on its commitment to fiscal prudence.

Those concerns are shared by investors, and while Mr Zuma’s U-turn and his decision to bring Pravin Gordhan back as finance minister helped allay the worst of the concerns, the reputational damage has not been repaired.

Nor will it be easy to deal with SA’s vulnerabilities: its sizeable current account and fiscal deficits and a weak growth outlook.

That’s certainly why the rand has taken such a beating this week, even after it recovered somewhat after Mr Gordhan’s reappointment.

Any hopes that it might have started back on the road to recovery once markets began trading again in the new year have been dashed.

Monday was Wall Street’s worst first trading day of the year since the Great Depression year of 1931.

Beijing let the yuan devalue by the most since August, fuelling fears that China’s slowdown is worse than official data suggest. And we had the oil price sinking to well below $40, combined with geopolitical concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weaponry, as well as growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s not to mention the strong dollar, which could become even stronger this year as US interest rates continue to rise.

But if advanced economies have been hit hard, emerging markets are worse off. Developing country equities are on course for their worst week since 2011, according to Bloomberg. Emerging market currencies such as the Russian rouble, Brazilian real and the Mexican peso were hit hard.

The World Bank’s worry is that a faster-than-expected slowdown in large emerging economies could have global repercussions, even though it still expects that the global economy will grow 2.9% this year, up from 2.4% last year, thanks to the world’s advanced economies.

But it flags the simultaneous slowdown across most major emerging markets — the Brics bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) specifically — as a concern, pointing out that not since the 1980s has there been a slowdown across all major emerging market economies. The bank reminds us too that more than 40% of the world’s poor live in the developing countries, in which growth slowed last year — and that the weak outlook is going to make it very hard to tackle poverty.

For SA, that is of profound concern. Doing what we can to boost growth and cut our vulnerability should be the top priority.