Picture: 123RF/LEON SWART
Picture: 123RF/LEON SWART

Nhlanhla Nene has been dropped from SA’s cabinet twice in three years — and his misfortunes have been the catalyst that turned one of the biggest rand bears into one of the biggest bulls.

As the currency declined this week amid speculation that Nene would resign as finance minister, Nomura International recommended a long-rand position versus the dollar, entering the trade at R14.85/$ and targeting a move to the “lower 13s” over six months. That compares with a median forecast of R15.14/$ in a Bloomberg survey of 24 analysts, and would place Nomura among the four most bullish forecasters.

That’s quite a turnaround from January 2016, when Nomura predicted the rand would slump to R19/$, from about R16/$, after then President Jacob Zuma had unexpectedly fired Nene as finance minister the previous month. That compared with the R15.30/$ median call of 32 analysts in a Bloomberg survey at the time, and would have positioned Nomura as the most bearish among them.

While Nomura described Nene’s axing in December 2015 as a “shock” larger than the 2008 financial crisis, his ousting this time round would have “minimal” effect on markets, and could even be positive as a signal that the government won’t tolerate corruption, strategists including Henrik Gullberg wrote in a note on Tuesday. In addition, a sustained trade surplus and hawkish central bank would support the rand, they said.

“The trade balance has improved significantly on the back of the sell-off in the rand when Nene was first dismissed, which made the rand very competitive,” Gullberg said on Wednesday. “Nene having to go despite not being found guilty of wrongdoing” is a sign that tolerance of corruption “is much lower than it was in the past”, he said.

Nomura’s view is at odds with others including Societe Generale and Deutsche Bank, who have recommended shorting the rand. But it is already reaping the reward: after President Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Nene as finance minister with former central bank governor Tito Mboweni on Tuesday, the rand strengthened 1.9% to R14.56/$ before giving up some of its gains on Thursday to trade at R14.66/$.

The rand declined 25% in 2015, reaching a record against the dollar in December after Zuma fired Nene. This year, it is down 17%, buffeted by headwinds including a stronger dollar, rising US rates and crises in Turkey and Argentina. But the worst is probably over, according to Gullberg, provided Moody’s Investors Service holds the country’s credit rating at investment level in an assessment scheduled for Friday.

“I think that will provide a further boost to the rand, the external environment permitting,” he said.

Bloomberg