South Africa’s currency on Monday plunged to record lows, as concerns spiked about the growing impact of China's economic slowdown on South Africa's economy. The South African rand fell by 10 percent compared to the U.S. dollar, reaching an all-time low of 18 rand per U.S. dollar, before swinging back to 16.57 rand per dollar. China is South Africa's largest trading partner, exchanging around $20 billion in goods a year, and its thirst for South Africa's natural resources has helped power the country's economy.
The decline in the value of the rand, which could make it more expensive for South Africans to buy goods and services and harder to pay debts, is the most recent example of the global fallout of China's slowdown. Fears of a sharp economic pullback in China have caused extreme volatility on global stock markets over the past week, but a deeper impact is being felt in places around the world that came to rely on a rising China for economic fuel.
"There’s a pretty ugly mix really of political, economic and deep-seated structural problems exacerbated by the slowdown in China which made the rand pretty vulnerable," said Neil Shearing, chief emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.
Chinese shares plunged again on Monday, following an even larger drop on Thursday and a brief respite on Friday. The Shanghai Composite Index fell 5.33 percent on Monday, while the Shenzhen Composite Index fell 6.60 percent.
As China’s economy has slowed in recent years, so too has the pace of its demand for iron ore, coal, gold, and other ores and minerals, which are among South Africa’s largest exports. Historically low commodity prices and a sharp devaluation of the Chinese currency in August, which effectively made imports more expensive for China, have also led to a dimmer outlook across the resource-rich continent.
South Africa’s economy also appears vulnerable, with sluggish economic growth, a stubbornly high unemployment rate, and rising food prices due to drought. And the country’s combination of a trade deficit and slowing exports in 2015 have spooked investors.
Some have argued that South Africa and other countries on the continent are now paying the price for an over-reliance on China. South Africa exports huge portions of its coal, precious metals and steel, among other minerals, to China. But the reality, analysts said, is that commodity-exporting countries have had little choice as the Chinese import market expanded.
“It’s not really avoidable by diversification because (China) really is the market,” said Dennis Dykes, chief economist at South Africa's NedBank.
The impact of Chinese volatility comes as South Africa is reeling from its own internal problems. Last month, President Jacob Zuma fired the finance minister, Nhanhla Nene, but then struggled to replace him, first choosing the relatively unknown David van Rooyen and then removing him just days later, after the rand crashed. Zuma then settled on former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, but investors were already unsettled by the confusion.
Bond ratings agency Fitch downgraded the country’s rating to BBB-, as the turmoil sparked concern among investors that the ruling ANC party was not up to the task of managing the economy, including such challenges as limiting the country’s deficit, alleviating electricity shortages, and raising spending on transport and education.
“The event was seen by markets as a move towards less fiscal discipline,” said Dykes.
Most emerging economies have seen their currencies weaken since 2011, as investors have shifted funds back to more developed countries. But South Africa has been among the hardest hit. And during 2015, the rand lost a quarter of its value.
The rand has seen dramatic declines twice in the last two decades — in 2001 and 2008 — but both times it rebounded quickly thanks to an increase in Chinese demand and the growth of commodity prices. This time, analysts say, such a recovery is not as likely, placing more emphasis on the South African government to improve fiscal policy.
“This time, it’s absolutely to do with the policy,” said Dykes. “ The government needs to recommit itself to strong fiscal discipline."
The Federal Reserve's recent decision to raise interest rates, which makes investing in the U.S. relatively attractive compared to emerging markets, is also contributing to weaker currencies and slower growth across Africa. Angola, Zambia, South Africa and other countries have raised rates to keep investment from leaving their countries and prop up their currencies – even though higher rates may lead to slower growth.
The timing of the economic slowdown and the currency dive could have drastic consequences for food security in South Africa. The country has faced a major drought recently and will likely have to import more food than it usually does — but a less valuable rand will make those imports very expensive in some cases, analysts said.
Kevin Sieff reported from Nairobi.