Vitually all my adult life I’ve lived by the motto that “only the paranoid survive”, an old saying that also happened to be the title of a best-selling book by Andy Grove, one of the co-founders of the Intel Group, more than 20 years ago.
I didn’t trust my teachers at school, nor the dominee, nor my corporals in the army, nor a series of less-than-brilliant bosses when I had the misfortune of being formally employed.
Fortunately, I have been my own boss for more than 25 years now and my paranoia, by and large, has served me well. My successes have been my own while I have taken full responsibility for my mistakes — and often paid the price.
I don’t trust politicians or any bureaucrat who has the inclination and the power to want to control my freedom of movement, freedom of financial decisions and more importantly – ownership of my personal assets.
I’ve also met far too many ex-Zimbabweans, mostly ex-farmers or business people, who’ve told me their personal stories of survival (or not) after they were forced to flee their former prosperous farms with only the possessions they could get into the back of an old Land Rover or Humber.
It is therefore understandable that I am following the latest and rather urgent developments surrounding “expropriation without compensation” (EWC) and the stated intention of the ANC/EFF coalition to change Section 25 of the SA Constitution, the clause that deals primarily with ownership of property — not only land as some people seem to think. The issue of EWC has been bubbling under the radar for many years, but bubbling nevertheless.
It seems as if the mainstream media is so sucked up in the euphoria surrounding the ascension to the presidency by Cyril Ramaphosa, that few are daring to question this renewed haste for EWC. Even normally lucid commentators have abandoned all sense of realism, instead praising EWC as something that is needed to redress the sins of the past. At least Peter Bruce, columnist at Business Day, had the courage to state in one of his regular columns that it’s ‘Time to Panic’, one of the few to speak truth to the facts.
What has been noteworthy is that the business and investment community has been particularly silent on this issue. I could not find one article or comment from the investment community about what ordinary, middle-of-the-road investors should be doing. Either they are too petrified to speak or under strict instructions from higher up not to breathe a word about this issue, lest it become a career-ending commentary.
My advice, dear reader, is not to trust any politician, banker, financial institution, spokesman for organised agriculture, media personality or whomever about the end result of what the ANC/EFF is trying to achieve: a complete and total confiscation and transfer of ALL property rights and ownership entitlements to government, without compensating anyone for this, as it is merely the custodian of all private assets in perpetuity.
Government did this with mineral rights in 2004 and now it is trying — and probably will succeed — to do it with ownership of private property.
In short: SA will become the first modern country in the world to try and take such a regressive step, something that has not worked anywhere in the developed world, and then to try and pretend it can do it without (a) affecting agricultural output and, (b) damaging investor confidence. The ANC furthermore thinks it will not have an impact on its credit rating nor the willingness of foreigner investors to put down money in SA. On all these counts it is wrong. You cannot ever get a scrambled egg back into its shell in one piece again.
Good advice from Frans Cronje
For this reason I would rather place credence on what Dr Frans Cronje from the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) had to say recently.
Cronje is a fact-driven researcher and scenario planner and not prone to hyperbole. When he speaks I tend to listen more carefully. This is what he had to say during an interview with Alec Hogg on Biznews on February 17 this year.
“I don’t want to be in the position of a chap I once came across, who was a senior person in the Zimbabwean Commercial Farmers Union, and he said he has the great regret that at the time the invasions began he told the farmers to go back to their farms and everything would be fine. The law would protect them, the courts would as well, but he had a nagging feeling of doubt. They couldn’t believe what would happen next, and he says he feels guilty that there were people who listened to his advice and lost everything, when he should have said to them that when a government threatens you in the way that SA’s farmers are threatened – you should take those threats seriously and you should seek, where it is possible, to dilute the risk in your business.
There are various ways of doing that. If you’ve got kids and they’ve got the shot at spending a few years of working or studying abroad – it’s probably a good thing to take that. If you’ve got a little bit of wealth perhaps you would, and I’m not giving advice now, but you might want to go and talk to your advisor about parking some of that offshore. The way you survive volatile emerging markets is by having choices, and I think had Zimbabwean farmers, when the first chatter started, put themselves in a position where they had more choices, many of them might have lost less. The individual chap sitting on his farm today must think carefully whether he has options. If he does not, and if I was that chap, it would be justified to have some level of concern about his prospects in a future SA.”
Already the local markets have reacted as I thought they would. The rand has weakened from about R11.60 to close to R12 last week Friday while bank shares — which have loans totalling R180 billion to the farming community — have been sold down heavily. The JSE has been the worst-performing stock market over the past month — roughly since Ramaphosa made his EWC-speech in parliament (see table enclosed).
It’s not exactly the tale of foreign money pouring into the country. On the contrary…
This will continue, in my view. It’s also telling that Cas Coovadia, speaking on behalf of the Banking Association of South Africa, warned that EWC is not the way to go, one of the few spokespeople to issue such a formal warning.
Contrast this to Jannie de Villiers, head of GrainSA, who was quoted on the Farmers Weekly website that “alles sal regkom, moenie worry nie….”.
Next in line: foreign investment allowance
My advice is to take heed of Cronje’s warning. The rich already have their Plan Bs, while the poor have nothing to lose. It is primarily middle-class wealth (property, pension fund, savings) that is at risk. If you don’t have some money offshore, do it sooner rather than later. If, as I expect, the rand starts reacting fully to these unfolding events heading our way, the foreign investment gates — currently still open — will close overnight.
And if Cronje’s warning is not sufficient, then read what the editors of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had to say on this topic:
“No country ever became rich through its government’s seizure of private property (exhibit A: The Soviet Union), but politicians in South Africa want to give it another go.
The idea is likely to duplicate the awful experience of Zimbabwe during the Robert Mugabe era, a case study that bureaucrats cannot distribute resources more efficiently or productively than the private markets. Mugabe’s confiscations spooked the investors, agricultural industry collapsed and a once prosperous country became known for hyperinflation and poverty.
Mr Malema may believe that the Zimbabwean model will lead South Africa to a “new vision of agrarian revolution”. But the ruling ANC is supporting the measures to distract attention from its own failed statist economic policies, which have produced sub-par growth and denied opportunity to poor South Africans. The first budget of the new president Cyril Ramaphosa suggests these policies will continue.
“South Africa needs more capital, more investment and a favourable business environment. Seizing private property has produced misery everywhere it has been tried. South Africans don’t need more of that.”
That, dear reader, from the foremost financial publication in the world. Its readers are the foreign investors who CR thinks will not be deterred by EWC. Think again. Remember one thing when it comes to foreign capital: it is cowardly of nature. It slinks away in the middle of the night without a peek or a boo….
What to do?
You can choose to ignore the potential threat to your personal wealth, justifying your inaction that not much will change, or that EWC will not damage the economy. The government has record of announcing grand plans but the execution has been a shambles, you might think.
Do you really think that the government could pull off EWC without damaging the economic fibre of this country? I personally don’t think so.
Make use of your foreign investment allowance while you still can. It’s been a better investment than local investments for many years anyway. For years my recommendation to diversify offshore has been met with the reply that offshore investing is risky. On the contrary, we are now one of the riskiest investment destinations in the modern world.
Furthermore, open a bank account in a foreign country which will give you access via local ATMs to a debit card to spend your offshore money without having to repatriate your money via the local banking system.
Should you sell your farm/property? Farm prices have already dropped dramatically, I am told, while transaction levels have plummeted. The same is happening to prices of wild and exotic game. The prices of wild game — which until two years or so ago were in a massive bull market — have plummeted, with values for certain species now down 50% to 70%. Some breeds with unusual colour variants have become unsaleable. These things are all inter-related.
We will soon know how the farming community will react to this new threat to their wealth and existence. One farmer I spoke to had a sanguine approach to this issue: “I am the last in my family who wants to farm. I am going to farm the hell out of this piece of land until it is taken away from me. All the profits will be invested offshore as a nest-egg for me and my family.”
There might be other capital-rich farmers who might use the current bout of uncertainty to amass more land and farms, hoping that the issue will blow over once the government has worked out that the implementation of EWC is unworkable. That is the nature of things.
Residential property prices, too, will in my view, drop even further and one can expect a further freeze in the granting of bonds. Which bank will grant bonds on property while the issue of land ownership is being discussed? Residential property in certain rural areas is particularly vulnerable.
The quarterly reports on the housing market from FNB and Absa, expected early in April will make for some interesting reading already. But the full impact will only be clearly visible at the end of the second quarter, I feel.
Another place to look will be he quarterly reports on mortgage finance as published in the Reserve Bank quarterly reports.
South Africa has never been a boring country. The wild ride is about to get even more frenzied in the months and years ahead.
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of Moneyweb.
Magnus Heystek is the investment strategist at Brenthurst Wealth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for ideas and suggestions.