Flight of corporate profits poses biggest threat to South Africa’s economy

5 July by Patrick Bond

Last week the South African Reserve Bank Quarterly Bulletin confirmed that foreign corporations are milking the economy, drawing away profits far faster than they are reinvested or than local firms bring home offsetting profits from abroad. Can anything be done to stop the hemorrhaging?

First, the appalling numbers: South Africa’s ‘current account deficit’ fell to a dangerous -5% of GDP GDP
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Domestic Product is an aggregate measure of total production within a given territory equal to the sum of the gross values added. The measure is notoriously incomplete; for example it does not take into account any activity that does not enter into a commercial exchange. The GDP takes into account both the production of goods and the production of services. Economic growth is defined as the variation of the GDP from one period to another.
because the ‘balance of payments Balance of payments A country’s balance of current payments is the result of its commercial transactions (i.e. imported and exported goods and services) and its financial exchanges with foreign countries. The balance of payments is a measure of the financial position of a country vis-à-vis the rest of the world. A country with a surplus in its current payments is a lending country for the rest of the world. On the other hand, if a country’s balance is in the red, that country will have to turn to the international lenders to meet its funding needs. ’ (mainly profit Profit The positive gain yielded from a company’s activity. Net profit is profit after tax. Distributable profit is the part of the net profit which can be distributed to the shareholders. outflows) suffered rapid decay; the other component of the current account, the trade deficit – i.e., imports minus exports – is trivial in comparison. The net outflow of corporate dividends paid to owners of foreign capital reached R174 billion ($11 bn) in the first quarter (measured on an annualised basis), 30% higher than the equivalent 2015 level. The quarter’s trade deficit was just R38 billion ($2.5 bn).

Hitting a 5% current account deficit is often a signal that speculative investors will start a currency run, as occurred even in strong East Asian exporters in 1998. Today only one other country (Colombia) among the 60 largest economies has a higher current account deficit.

Another destructive signal is foreign debt. Because repatriating profits must be done with hard currency (not rands), South Africa’s external debt has soared to about R2 trillion (39% of GDP, $125 billion), from less than R100 billion (16% of GDP, $25 billion) in 1994.

Who’s to blame?

The metabolism of destructive economics is quickening. Since the minerals commodity slump began in 2011, South Africa has been squeezed ever tighter, especially by transnational mining and smelting corporations. Anglo American and Glencore lost three quarters of their share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. value in 2015 alone, and Lonmin was down 99% in value from its 2011 peak to 2015 trough.

Desperate, such firms have been exporting profits ever more rapidly in comparison to overseas-generated profits that local corporations pay to local shareholders. (The ratio is about two to one.)

As a result, Moeletsi Mbeki once joked, “Big companies taking their capital out of South Africa are a bigger threat to economic freedom than [Economic Freedom Fighters leader] Julius Malema.”

Who let the capital out? African National Congress Secretary General Gwede Mantashe admitted last year: “At the time when neoliberalism was on the ascendancy as an ideology, it became fashionable to allow companies to migrate and list in the stock exchanges of developed economies.”

Exchange control liberalization began in 1995 with the Financial Rand’s abolition. The process sped up thanks to permission granted in 1999-2000 by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni, allowing the country’s largest firms to delist from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and thus shift profit and dividend flows abroad. (Manuel and Mboweni received accolades from world financiers and are today employees of Rothschild’s and Goldman Sachs, respectively.)

Exchange controls were relaxed on dozens of occasions since 1994. The 2015 concessions by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene – now employed by Allen Gray Investments after the BRICS New Development Bank Johannesburg branch manager job fell through – allow the wealthy to take R10 million ($650,000) offshore annually, a 2.5 times rise over prior years. Explained a Moneyweb reporter, this “effectively ended [individual] controls for all but the most wealthy South Africans.”

Meanwhile, institutional investors Institutional investors Entities which pool large sums of money and invest those sums in securities, real property and other investment assets. They are principally banks, insurance companies, pension funds and by extension all organizations that invest collectively in transferable securities. – representing the savings, pension funds Pension Fund
Pension Funds
Pension funds: investment funds that manage capitalized retirement schemes, they are funded by the employees of one or several companies paying-into the scheme which, often, is also partially funded by the employers. The objective is to pay the pensions of the employees that take part in the scheme. They manage very big amounts of money that are usually invested on the stock markets or financial markets.
and insurance accounts of the mass of small investors – are compelled to keep 75% of their assets in local investments. By all accounts, such controls prevented the 2008 world crisis from melting South Africa’s finances. But the big institutions have avoided reinvestment in fixed capital; instead they keep the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and real estate at bubbly levels.

Local companies on ‘capital strike’

The corporate outflow is all the more frustrating because of a local capital strike. According to the Reserve Bank, corporate fixed investment is down nearly 7% in recent months, at a time government investment is also down 12%. (This trend isn’t peculiar to South Africa, for according to the United Nations, in 2011, $224 billion in Foreign Direct Investments were made in the extractive industries, and in 2015 just $66 billion.)

The only major new South African fixed investment comes from parastatals: Eskom’s over-priced and ecologically destructive Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power plants. Even more destructive Transnet projects lie ahead: the export of 18 billion tonnes of coal through a new rail line and the 8-fold increase in the South Durban port-petrochemical capacity (the National Development Plan’s top two infrastructure priorities), together representing the over-breeding of gigantic white elephants in President Jacob Zuma’s home province.

Corporates claim to act rationally by leaving local profits as idle cash, given the Reserve Bank’s four interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
hikes over the past year, disincentivizing new investment. South Africa’s medium-term interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. rates are now fourth highest amongst the world’s major countries surveyed by The Economist. (Only governments in Brazil, Venezuela and Turkey pay a higher price for debt, and only companies in these countries plus Argentina, Ukraine, Egypt and Russia pay more when borrowing.)

Illicit financial flows

But even worse, some of the same firms removed an additional R330 billion offshore annually as ‘illicit financial flows’ through tax-dodging techniques from 2004-13, according to the Washington NGO Global Financial Integrity. These outflows exceed $80 billion annually across the continent, reports Thabo Mbeki’s African Union commission, throwing into question the merits of Foreign Direct Investment, given the scale of this looting.

Several spectacular local cases have been documented in recent years: misinvoicing by the biggest platinum companies, especially Lonmin with its Bermuda ‘marketing’ arm (and 9% ownership by Cyril Ramaphosa); De Beers with its R45 billion in misinvoicing over seven years; and MTN (under Chairman Ramaphosa) Mauritius profit diversions from several African countries.

Information from the Panama Papers recently revealed how Fidentia fraudster J. Arthur Brown and Foxwhelp’s Khulubuse Zuma (the president’s nephew) set up profit hideouts offshore, along with 1700 other South Africans. Last year, WikiLeaks whistle-blew R200 million in the Swiss HSBC accounts of Fana Hlongwane, the British Aerospace agent and arms-dealing advisor to then Defence Minister Joe Modise.

How common is such behavior? Laments local NGO Corruption Watch, “Two years ago PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed in their 2014 Global Economic Crime Survey that 69% of [SA] respondents indicating they had experienced some form of economic crime in the 24 months preceding the survey.”

In its 2016 Survey, PwC once again recorded a world-leading 69% corporate corruption rate for South Africa, compared to a global average for economic crime of 36%. According to the firm’s forensic services chief Louis Strydom, “We are faced with the stark reality that economic crime is at a pandemic level in South Africa.”

Notwithstanding a recent get-tough SA Revenue Service announcement following the Panama Papers’ jolt, the authorities’ inability to uncover such crime, prosecute it and put criminals into jail is no secret. More than two thirds of PwC’s 232 South African respondents believe Pretoria lacks the regulatory will or capacity to halt Sandton criminals.

“The latest trend is disturbing,” observed Business Day’s Hilary Joffe. “Now that MTN has managed to have its fine [for failing to cut five million non-registered cellphone subscribers including Boko Haram lines] in Nigeria cut down from $5.5bn to $1.7bn, can we have our money back? The trouble with South African companies running into big trouble abroad is that their woes can easily spill over into our balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. of payments.”


The only short-term solution is a radical tightening of exchange controls against corporations and wealthy individuals, much as John Maynard Keynes advised more than 80 years ago: “The whole management of the domestic economy depends upon being free to have the appropriate interest rate without reference to the rates prevailing in the rest of the world. Capital controls is a corollary to this.”

Although tightened exchange controls were also advocated by Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, the metalworkers union and obscure local academics for many years, a highly adverse balance of forces made the policy demand impossible to win in practice.

However, last week’s news of the extremely adverse balance of payments may force the issue before long, unless the corporates and ratings agencies continue wielding their destructive power over the supine South African state.


Patrick Bond

professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where he has directed the Centre for Civil Society since 2004. His research interests include political economy, environment, social policy, and geopolitics.



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