The South African economy, like many others around the world, has had a ‘bumpy’ start to 2022.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, volatility in international financial markets, inflationary pressures and so on have caused an economic environment that threatens to spill over into a global recession.
Locally, the economy is characterised by low levels of economic growth, high levels of unemployment (above 35%), inflation rates above the upper limit of the SA Reserve Bank’s inflation target (above 6%) and a cycle of increases to the repo rate (increasing the cost of credit).
The inflation rate for June is 7.4% – up from 6.5% in May.
More concerning than these two figures being above the 6% target upper limit of the Reserve Bank, is the way these figures are made up.
According to the Consumer Price Index report published by Statistics SA in June, the lowest two expenditure deciles (the 20% of people who spend the least) faced the highest inflation rate, with the lowest decile facing 9.1% and the second lowest decile facing 8.5%.
This indicates that the worst of the local inflation is being faced by the most marginalised groups.
This makes sense as the proportion spent on basic goods such as food, fuel and transport is much larger within the spending basket of the lowest expenditure deciles.
How hard a hit?
Presently, food inflation is up 9%, electricity and other household fuels are up 14.5% and petrol is up 45.3%.
To the poorest consumers, this has a significant impact on their ability to meet their needs as their already-stretched finances are now being asked to absorb the toughest of conditions faced by the SA economy (from an inflationary perspective).
The SA Reserve Bank has acted in accordance with its mandate to keep inflation between 3% and 6% and, as a result, increased the repo rate by 75 basis points (0.75%) to combat some of the worst inflation figures in nearly two decades.
In theory, increasing the cost of credit will reduce the demand for it and therefore slow down the pace of ‘new money’ entering the economy via credit channels. This slowdown of funds entering the economy via credit channels will slow down the inflation rate as less money chases the same amount of goods.
This may seem logical, but what is the impact on economic growth when the economic policy is trying to slow down the rate at which credit is being used?
Credit, when used constructively, can assist economic growth as it allows credit users to take advantage of opportunities now, using money that they can pay back later. It therefore can act as a catalyst for facilitating things getting done sooner rather than later.
By making credit more expensive, not as many opportunities that were once financially viable remain viable and therefore less than the full potential of the economy is realised as certain activities have become no longer economically viable at certain interest rate levels – for example, prospective homeowners may not get the credit to buy new homes.
A closer-to-home consequence is that credit-active households tend to spend less as they not only consolidate their expenditure in reaction to their new credit repayments, but also become more averse to taking out any more credit at these interest rates.
This dilemma is further exacerbated by salary increases that lag the increasing inflation and which are definitely lower than the inflation rates felt by low-income earners.
Unfortunately, the net result can be dire on an economy that has the poorest citizens facing the greatest inflation, a small middle class under credit cost pressure, salary and wage increases that lag inflation, and an economy that cannot create jobs.
If the middle class continues to have its purchasing power eroded, there will be less demand in the economy – making the desperately needed job creation even less likely, due to expenditure being channelled to other expenses rather than demand-generating activities.
One such example would be the demand for domestic helpers.
This tends to be a discretionary spend within SA’s more wealthy households. As inflationary pressures go up, these jobs are placed under pressure due to their affordability.
Until the world adjusts to the pressure placed on various supply chains by the Russia-Ukraine war and the impact it has had on global oil prices, this inflationary problem will persist around the world.
Advanced economies are fortunate in that they tend to have appropriate levels of financial protection built into their economies to weather such a storm, while developing economies tend to suffer the brunt of such situations as their economies are often vulnerable in times like this.
The South African economy is one such developing economy that is currently battling high unemployment, low economic growth, high inflation and increasing interest rates.
The economy and population should brace for tough times ahead.
Bryden Morton is executive director and Chris Blair CEO of 21st Century.