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?

SA85-90 “combined” and more actuarial sloppiness

I know of far too many actuaries who think that the “average” SA85/90 table is an appropriate base for their insured lives mortality assumption.

It’s not.

It’s also a good example of “actuarial sloppiness”.

To be specific, it is equally inappropriate if your current experience is a reasonable fit for the combined SA85/90 table.

SA85/90 was graduated based on South African insured lives data from 1985 to 1990. This period is important because it’s generally felt to be the last period in South Africa where HIV/AIDS would not have had a significant impact on mortality. (Estimates differ, but 1985 is often taken as the starting point for the HIV epidemic in South Africa and even though there might have been some deaths within the first five years, it is inconceivable to have affected a significant portion of the population.)

SA85/90 came in two version, “light” and “heavy”. Somewhat disappointingly, no distinction was made between males and females. Light mortality reflected the typical, historical, insured life characteristics which was pretty much white males. If I recall correctly, “Coloured” and “Indian” males were also combined into the light table. “Heavy” mortality reflected the growing black policyholder base in South Africa.

For all the awkwardness of this racial classification, the light and heavy tables reflect the dramatically different mortality in South Africa based on wealth, education, nutrition and access to healthcare. Combining the results into a single table wasn’t reliable since there were significant differences in mortality AND expected changes in the proportions of the heavy and light populations in the insured populations into the future.

A combined table was still created at the time. I suspect Rob Dorrington may have some regrets at having created this in the first place or at least in not having included a clearer health warning directly in the table name. The combined table reflects the weighted experience of light and heavy based on the relative sizes of the light and heavy sub-populations during the 1985 to 1990 period. I think a safer name would have been “SA85/90 arbitrary point in time combined table not to be used in practice”.

There is no particular reason to believe that the sub-population that you are modelling reflects these same weights. Even for the South African population as a whole these weights are no longer representative. The groups, at least in the superficial sense we view any particular citizen as coming from distinctly one group, will fairly obviously have experienced different mortality but will also have experience different fertility and immigration rates.

Our actuarial pursuit of separating groups of people into smaller, homogenous groups should also indicate that in most cases the sub-population you are modelling will more closely reflect one or the other of these groups rather than both of them.

But even if, just for the sake of argument, your sub-population of interest does reflect the same mix at each and every age as baked into the combined SA85/90 table, then it would still be entirely inappropriate to use the table for all but the crudest of tasks. After all, there a reason for our penchant for homogenous groups. If you model your sub-population for any length of time, the mix will surely change as those exposed to higher mortality die at a faster rate than those with low mortality.

The first order impact would be that you would be modelling higher mortality over time than truly expected. Due to the relative mortality between the two populations differing by age, the actual outcome will be somewhat more complex than that and more difficult to estimate in advance. This is particularly important with insurance products where the timing of death is critically important to profitability.

So, just because you can get a reasonable fit to your experience of an age- or percentage-adjusted SA85/90 combined table does not mean you have an appropriate basis for modelling future mortality. It may not vastly different from a more robust approach, but it’s just sloppy.

Emerging Markets and Equity Performance

The astoundingly useful guys at FT Alphaville pointed me towards this Gerard Minack analysis of emerging market returns yesterday.

The message is that high growth economies don’t necessarily translate to high equity returns.

The argument can be summarised as this:

  • Earnings growth is correlated with economic growth
  • Valuation changes contribute significantly to equity returns and can have a major impact on equity returns distinct from underlying economic growth for long periods, 10 or 20 years
  • But in the long term these valuation changes should even out. We should still be left with a correlation between economic growth and equity returns
  • High growth economies need significant investment. This additional investment in companies comes at the cost of equity dilution. High growth economies are positively correlated with high dilution.
  • Thus, EPS correlation with economic growth is significantly lower than it would be without dilution.
  • This explains the virtually zero correlation between dividends and economic growth

Check out the full story for some pretty graphs.

What’s interesting for me here is that none of these arguments require or allow for market efficiency. It’s a totally separate way of looking at the issue with empirical evidence to support it.

I suppose the market efficiency counter would be that the change in valuation over long periods should be exactly as required to provide an appropriate risk-adjusted return to investors given the expected changes in all other variables. I don’t know if I buy that or not.

The key message for me is the counter argument to the “obvious” view that high growth emerging markets necessarily provide greater equity returns in the long run. The same can be said for why high growth companies don’t necessarily provide higher equity returns in the long run. As the low-growth companies are spitting out dividends to investors, the high-growth companies are diluting existing investors as they raise more capital.

The one question I haven’t full settled in my own mind is whether real dividends being correlated with economic growth is the best measure. High dividends now should result in low dividends in future. Low dividends now should result in high dividends in future. We should expect a point-in-time correlation between high growth economies (and companies) and low dividend yields. I would think that this correlation is needed in addition to the time series analysis performed by Dimpson, Marsh and Staunton since there can be weird lag effects that diminish the correlation there.

All the same, food for thought, especially living in a low-moderate growth emerging market country!

Should South Africa import Chinese TVs?

Should South Africa import Chinese television sets? Your answer to this question depends probably on your education.

If you were university educated in South Africa, you are likely to be in the market at various times in your life for a large LED backlit LCD panel with a high refresh rate and more HDMI inputs than you will ever need. You will also quite likely have a market-oriented, Anglo-Saxon view of government’s role in industrial policy and international trade. Thus you would probably say “yes, import cheap TVs from China so I can buy a cheap TV and not pay for inefficient local firms to manufacturer expensive, inferior TVs.”

If you are a TV snob, you will still want free imports of Chinese TVs to keep the prices down of competing, but fancier Sony and LG models from Japan and Korea.

If you are a little cynical, you might say South Africa could never have the manufacturing capability and scale to produce all the components and assemble them into a modern LCD TV. That’s not actually the debate I ant to pursue now, so in that case let’s say the alternative would be to locally assemble sets made with significant local components, even if the LCD panel itself were imported. Of course, the reason South Africa doesn’t have the scale to produce the panels themselves at the moment is a function of industrial policy decisions decades go. There is no absolute reason we couldn’t have that capability. But, that debate is related but separate post. Continue reading “Should South Africa import Chinese TVs?”

Symmetry and savvy

The DA is quite negative on the new taxes proposed for the mining sector. They seem to argue that higher taxes will discourage employment and investment.

I haven’t analysed the details thoroughly so maybe they are correct. I suspect that it’s more dogmatic following of views from those who don’t understand the pros and cons well enough to change their mind.

For example, if higher taxes are bad for employment and investment, surely lower taxes would be good for employment and investment? I doubt that the DA is arguing that the current level of taxes is exactly optimal, so shouldn’t they have been campaigning more loudly for lower taxes?

The reality is that, considered on their own, higher taxes will reduce rates of return to shareholders. This will make marginal operations unecnomical, which could result in job losses. The lower after-tax profit may also push  operations with marginal rates of return to below the required hurdle rate of some investors, reducing total investment in the sector.

This is, of course, true for all taxes. Hopefully there aren’t too many people left who believe that taxes should not exist.

So one real question is whether the tax rate is optimal, given the funds that can be directed towards government revenues in general and to specific employment creation and industrial development programmes specifically.

A second real question is whether the “price” for the permanent removal of natural resources being charged is appropriate (a combination of taxes and royalties) and from a philosophical perspective, who “owns” our country’s natural resources?

This leads to the third question or point that the DA really should be more aware of. Nationalisation, the Freedom Charter, and vast income inequalities are all part of a potent political conversation in South Africa. With nationalisation almost entirely off the table at the moment, being able to demonstrate in some manner that the “riches under the ground” are better being shared with everyone is an important political point to counter the more extreme political views.

The DA, in this instance, is blind to the subtler political benefits of this approach, blind to the definite benefits of increased revenues, blind to the possible benefits of focussed attention on this industry cluster, but completely convinced of the first-year economics free market principle of “tax leads to deadweight loss of consumer and supplier surplus” and thus lower employment and investment.