Why the last 7 years have felt rough

We’ve been in and out of recession. We’ve had more political drama than I’d like for a lifetime. We’ve had several lifetimes of obvious, unresolved corruption and fraud. We’ve had a volatile and depreciating currency by and large.

This graph brought it home a little to me:

You can see the sharp decline in South Africa’s GDP measured in USD terms over the period.

Egypt, despite an Arab Spring has not experienced the same precipitous decline. Nigeria’s recent troubles are now also clear.

Our USD GDP is below the point it was in 2010, offsetting a brief period after 2010 when it was still increasing. So maybe it’s more about the last 5 years than the last 7.

Of course, that is the wrong chart. GDP is affected by population growth and what we experience as individual citizens within a country is closer to GDP per capita. Continue reading “Why the last 7 years have felt rough”

Credit Life regulations and reactions (1)

Credit Life regulations have been live for long enough now that insurers are starting to feel the impact and the shake-up of amongst industry players is starting to emerge.

There have been plenty of debate around the regulations, in part because of the dramatic financial and operational impact they will have, and partly because of how imperfectly worded they are and the scope for interpretation.

I’ll be posting about this more in the coming days.

Basing the premium on initial or outstanding balance

First, a real anomaly is the ability for insurers  to charge the capped premium rate either on initial loan balance or on the declining outstanding balance.

There are good practical reasons to want to charge a single, known amount to policyholders. It is easier to administer and policyholders have greater clarity on what they are paying. Continue reading “Credit Life regulations and reactions (1)”

Who owns Defined Benefit holes?

In 2014, John Oliphant was fired from the Government Employees’ Pension Fund (GEPF) where he was principal executive officer.  There were allegations, some details not disputed, that had Mr Oliphant accused of exceeding his powers and not following due process which amounted to, at the maximum, some hundreds of thousands of Rands.

That outcome, with those modest numbers, especially with the murk that surrounded the allegations, contrasts markedly with the hundreds of millions of Rands known to be deeply mired in scandal at the moment without consequence.

The GEPF and the Public Investment Corporation (the PIC, which investments money on behalf of many state entities) are proximate with huge amounts of money. It could be expected to be an attractive target for those with sticky fingers and connections. So when stories emerge of PIC directing GEPF investments towards SOEs or other private investments for merits other than the investment returns for the fund, nobody is surprised but plenty are concerned.

Most of the stories in the press on this matter are misinformed.  The claims that pensioners’ money is at risk are misleading at best. One exception is the Daily Maverick article by Dirk De Vos. In this article, De Vos explains why tax payers rather than (only) government pensioners will bear the burden of failed investments for the GEPF. Continue reading “Who owns Defined Benefit holes?”

South Africa ranks 2nd in financial inclusion study

The Brookings Financial and Digital Inclusion Project measures South Africa one place behind Kenya in terms of financial inclusion.

I’m still working my way through the full report, but Kenya’s score is a significant jump above South Africa and the closely contested positions below it. Is Kenya genuinely making such inroads or is this a function of the measures used?

Economic growth during and after Apartheid and the real problem with 1%

I read a letter from Pali Lehohla on news24 this weekend. Lehohla, the head of StatsSA, disagreed with a report by DaMina Advisors on economic growth in South Africa during and post the apartheid era.

To paraphrase Lehohla, he disagreed with their methodology, their data and their values and ethics:

First, I need to engage the author on methods. Second, I address the facts. Third, I focus on the morality of political systems and, finally, I question the integrity of the luminaries of DaMina and ask them to come clean.

This wasn’t data I had looked at before, but some of Lehohla’s criticisms seemed valid. Using nominal GDP growth data is close to meaningless over periods of different inflation.

Second, the methodology of interpreting economic growth should use real growth instead of nominal growth because this carries with it differing inflation rates. This is to standardise the rates across high and low inflation periods.

I haven’t confirmed the DaMina calculations, but the labels in their table do say “current USD prices” which suggests they have used nominal data. It’s little wonder any period including the 1970s looks great from a nominal growth perspective with nominal USD GDP growth in 1973 and 1974 being 34% and 23%, compared to real growth of 2.2% and 3.8%. The high inflation of the 1970s arising from oil shocks and breakdown of the gold standard distorts this analysis completely.

Lehohla’s other complaint is also important, but less straightforward to my mind –

The methods that underpin any comparison for a given country cannot be based on a currency other than that of the country concerned. The reason is that exchange-rate fluctuations exaggerate the changes beyond what they actually are.

Two problems here – one is that purchasing power adjusted GDP indices are not typically available going far back in history. The other is that if one is using real GDP, the worst of the problems of currency fluctuations are already ironed out. (The worst, certainly not all and it would still be a factor that should be analysed rather than completely overlooked.)

I was disappointed that neither piece mentioned anything at all about real GDP per capita. Does it really matter how much more we produce as a country if the income per person is declining? Income inequality aside, important as it is, more GDP per capita means more earning power per person, more income per person, more things per person. It is a far more useful measure of prosperity for a country, and particularly for comparing economic growth across countries with different population growth rates.

My own analysis, based on World Bank data (available from 1960 to 2013)

real GDP growth (annual %) real GDP per capita growth (annual %)
1961-1969 6.1% 3.5%
1970-1979 3.2% 1.0%
1980-1989 2.2% -0.3%
1990-1999 1.4% -0.8%
2000-2009 3.6% 2.0%
2010-2013 2.7% 1.1%
1961-1990 3.6% 1.2%
1971-1990 2.4% 0.1%
1991-2010 2.6% 1.3%
1991-2013 2.6% 0.8%


I’ve put these numbers out without much analysis. However, it’s pretty clear that on the most sensible measure (real GDP per capita) over the periods the DaMina study considered, post-apartheid growth has been better than during the 1971-1990 period of Apartheid.

The conclusion is reversed if one includes the 1960s Apartheid economy and the latest data to 2013, the picture is reversed on both measures.

This, above all else, should talk to the dangers of selecting data to suit the outcome.

This analysis doesn’t talk to the impact of the gold standard, the low cost of gold mining closer to the surface than it is now, the technological catch-up South Africa should have benefited from more in the past, the impact of international sanctions and expenditure on the old SADF and who knows what else. There are much big monsters lurking there that I am not equipped to begin to analyse.

My overall conclusion? The Apartheid days were not “economically better” even without ignoring the millions of lives damaged. Unfortunately, our economic growth has for decades been too low to progress our economy to provide a better life for all.

Here is the problem:

1961-2013 1961-2013
Real GDP growth Real per capita GDP growth
South Africa 3.2% 1.0%
Kenya 4.6% 1.3%
Brazil 4.3% 2.3%
USA 3.1% 2.0%

Despite the theory of “Convergence“, the US has had double South Africa’s per capita GDP growth for over five decades.  Real GDP per capita increased by 72% in South Africa over the entire period from 1960 to 2013, which sounds impressive until you realise that the US managed 189%. That is more than 2.5x our growth Brazil has done even better at 237%. “Even Kenya” outperformed us over this period.

1% per annum real per capita GDP growth is just not good enough.

Foreign land ownership

Foreign person? Foreign company? Foreign trust? Local company owned by foreigners? Local company owned partly by foreigners? Foreign company owned by locals? Local company owned by locals with debt finance from foreigners?  Local bank with foreign shareholders and repossessed properties? Local insurance company issuing policies to foreigners? BRICS bank? Foreigner married in community of property to local? Local living permanently overseas?

You don’t even need to look at this proposal being counterproductive, populist silliness.

Book Review: Bitcon – The Naked Truth About Bitcoin

Jeffrey Robinson, the author of the well known book “Laundrymen” that I’m now reading, has written an engaging story about The Satoshi Faithful (as he calls them) supporters of Bitcoin and where their Faith is leading them stray.

The book is called BitCon: The Naked Truth About Bitcoin and it doesn’t pull punches in deriding the would-be currency. If you don’t know anything about Bitcoins, it may skip over some of the introductions necessary to hold your own in conversation. This isn’t a primer on Bitcoins or crypto-currencies, but it also doesn’t spend chapters on involved technical details so you won’t be completely lost.

I described the book as “engaging”. For me, already very sceptical of the long-term chances of success for Bitcoin and specifically  critical of its suitability as real “currency”, it had me nodding in agreement with many sections. Frankly, I don’t know how persuasive it would be to a fervent supporter (not that much anything would be).

I did enjoy the insights into some of the personalities behind Bitcoin and the histories of different supporters and how this has changed over the short time Bitcoins have been around. I learnt more about the Dark Web than I knew before, gaining a new appreciation for how dark the underbelly of the web and Bitcoins are.

Robinson ignored what I think is a key limitation on Bitcoin. Supporters claim its value derives in large part from the limited supply, but without any intrinsic value, other crypto-currencies are near-perfect substitutes. I’ve blogged about this before and was looking forward to seeing another take on it.

I enjoyed the book, reading through it fairly quickly and without wanting to switch to something else, suggesting Robinson hit the target with length and balance of information vs entertainment.

Go grab a copy from Amazon – BitCon: The Naked Truth About Bitcoin.