EDITORIAL: Investment pledges — it’s sort of true
Hopes that SA has turned the corner, and that business confidence and economic growth will only climb from here, should be tempered
Let’s not beat about the bush: securing R363bn in fixed investment at the second SA Investment Conference last week, on top of R300bn pledged last year, is a major achievement by President Cyril Ramaphosa. Much scepticism greeted the pledges at last year’s event, but Ramaphosa says R238bn worth of those projects (nearly 80% by value) have either been completed or are under construction.
The pledges have mostly turned out to be real, not spin doctoring. And yet, there are some things that don’t quite add up. Such as why, if the investment pledged in 2018 has mostly begun, are SA’s 2019 fixed investment numbers still so weak?
Of course, most of the pledges span five years, which would dilute their annual impact. But it also seems likely that some of the listed projects may not be new, expansionary investment, but maintenance investment that would have happened anyway. (In a normal year, the SA private sector invests about R600bn and the public sector R280bn.)
It is also probable that the positive effects of new investment are being offset by stagnation or disinvestment elsewhere — for example, the property development and construction sector, which is in crisis.
Another apparent contradiction is how, if domestic business confidence has collapsed and SA’s growth outlook and credit ratings are being revised lower, Ramaphosa has been able to raise so much new investment?
His economic adviser Trudi Makhaya suggests that unlike portfolio investment in financial assets, which is susceptible to shifts in sentiment, fixed investment tends to be a function of SA’s location on a fast-growing continent, its resource endowment and strong institutions. So if a company sees SA as a useful springboard to get its products into Africa, the country’s weak growth outlook may not be a significant impediment to investing.
But there was also a big increase in pledges from domestic firms, from just over R157bn last year to R262bn now. And it’s not only the big JSE-listed firms. There are several projects from a range of smaller manufacturers in the automotive, mineral beneficiation, renewable energy, agro-processing and oil & gas sectors. This suggests not everyone is buying into the prevailing pessimism and that many CEOs believe there is still money to be made in certain sectors, on a long-term view.
If true, it suggests Ramaphosa had a point when he said: "We South Africans beat ourselves to the ground — we don’t celebrate the good that we’re doing." He was speaking at the opening of the Durban plant of Africa’s first smartphone manufacturer, Mara Phones, last month.
Ramaphosa said negative-minded South Africans had erroneously assumed that the R1.5bn facility, announced at last year’s conference, was one of his "pipe dreams" and a place where cellphones would only be assembled, not manufactured.
It is also true that Ramaphosa is slowly improving the ease of doing business and that SA’s world competitiveness ranking is edging upward. A big step forward was the launch last week of Biz Portal, an integrated online platform for fast, inexpensive company registration.
So two key initiatives — raising investment and SA’s competitiveness ranking — are yielding results. But any hopes that SA has turned the corner, and that business confidence and economic growth will only climb from here, should be tempered.
For Ramaphosa’s investment plan to work, SA will need sustained, robust foreign capital inflows. However, it seems unlikely that the big investments pledged will be rolled out in full over the coming five years if Eskom can’t keep the lights on, or public infrastructure continues to deteriorate. This means the public sector’s capital investment contribution, which has dropped by R40bn in real terms over the past four years, will need to improve at a time of steep budget cuts.
So, it may be true that SA can’t be written off as an investment destination, but it’s too soon to pop the champagne. Back to work, everyone.