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Explainer: South Africa’s Central Bank – Ownership, Mandate and Independence

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In recent months, various debates about the South African Reserve Bank have focused broadly on three aspects – its shareholding, its mandate and its independence.

The three debates are somewhat convoluted. They are indeed three different issues, but they are interlinked.

Let’s turn to the issue of ownership first.

The South African Reserve Bank is one of only eight central banks in the world with private shareholders. The others are in Belgium, Greece, Italy, Japan, San Marino, Switzerland and Turkey.

The debate about shareholding in South Africa’s Reserve Bank centres around the issue of nationalisation. Some political players, such as the third largest party – the Economic Freedom Fighters – are calling for the ownership of the Bank to be transferred from current private shareholders to the South African government and has tabled a bill in Parliament to achieve this objective.

The issue is very charged. But it’s also confused and not very well understood. There’s an assumption that a change of ownership would automatically mean a change in the role the Bank plays. This isn’t the case because in fact the Bank’s shareholders play no role in its mandate. In that sense it doesn’t matter who the shareholders are. Because they can’t affect its mandate, nationalisation won’t affect the independence of the central bank.

But there are other ways in which the Bank’s ability to do its job can be undermined. This is where the Bank’s primary mandate comes in.

The mandate issue

The mandate of South Africa’s central bank is set out in the Constitution, which says:

The primary objective of the Bank shall be to protect the value of the currency of the Republic of South Africa in the interest of balanced and sustainable economic growth in the Republic.

The Bank also adheres to an inflation target which was put in place in 2000. This requires it to keep inflation within a band of 3% to 6%. The Bank uses monetary policy and interest rate decisions to achieve this objective. In short, when the inflationary trend declines, the interest rate declines and when the inflationary trend increases, the interest rate increases.

The issue of the Bank’s focus on keeping inflation within this band – and the fact that its mandate sets out clearly that managing inflation is it’s core job – is hotly contested.

Those on the left of the political spectrum, including the country’s largest trade union federation, argue that the South African Reserve Bank shouldn’t focus primarily on inflation. Instead, they say, it should also be taking account of economic growth as well as the employment rate in the country.

The Bank’s response has been that its current mandate is broad enough because it says quite clearly that, while managing inflation, it must do so “in the interest of balanced and sustainable economic growth in the Republic”.

For those like myself who oppose a broader mandate, the issue is quite simple: giving the Bank a broader mandate raises the danger that the Bank will take its eye off inflation because it’s having to concentrate on other issues. This, in turn, could lead to rampant inflation.

The Bank’s mandate is crucial in another respect. The SA Reserve Bank’s ability to pursue its mandate without interference from government is how its independence is measured.

South Africa’s central bank has acted on the whim of politicians before. It didn’t end well.

How political interference can hurt

In the 1980s inflation rose dramatically, resulting in the country suffering its highest inflation rates ever: on average about 15% per year for the decade.

Despite the fact that rising prices called for the Bank to act by raising interest rates, it failed to do so on instructions of the government. Inflation wreaked havoc on the earnings of ordinary South Africans, as well as on the value of people’s pensions.

The government’s interference was dramatically brought to light ahead of a by-election in 1984 in a Johannesburg suburb called Primrose. Just prior to the by-election the government instructed the South African Reserve Bank to drop the interest rate. This subsequently became known as the Primrose Prime incident.

Where the focus should be

The debates swirling around the central bank have created uncertainty. This is despite reassurances from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The President needs to do more: he also needs to establish certainty about the executive management of the South African Reserve Bank.

An executive vacancy at the central bank, created by the resignation of one of the Deputy Governors, Francois Groepe, must be filled as a matter of urgency. And the President should make clear his intention to reappoint the Governor, Lesetja Kganyago, and the Deputy Governor, Daniel Mminele, whose terms expire this year.

These appointments are under the purview of the President. The SA Reserve Bank Act stipulates that the President must fill executive positions after consultation with the Minister of Finance and the Bank’s board.

South Africa needs stability at the central bank to ensure a growth trajectory for the country. The President should get the process of filling the vacancy and providing certainty about the future of Kganyago and Mminele underway sooner rather than later. -The Conversation

-Jannie Rossouw: Head of School of Economic & Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand

The Conversation

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Here’s How Much It Could Cost If We Stop Social Distancing

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Topline: This week, President Trump floated the idea of easing up on social distancing measures on the theory that the damage caused by shutting down the economy might be greater than the cost of letting the virus run its course—some models suggest, however, that reopening the economy too soon could be exponentially more expensive.

  • If the United States were to abandon aggressive social distancing measures after 14 days, more than 125 million people will contract the virus, some 7 million could be hospitalized, and 1.9 million people will die (accounting for other factors like infectiousness and hospitalization rates), according to a model built by the New York Times
  • If social distancing goes on for two months, the model predicts that 14 million will contract the virus, with fewer than 100,000 deaths.
  • There’s no debate that the broader economy is going to suffer even at the current rate of spread. Morgan Stanley is predicting a 30% drop in GDP next quarter. U.S. GDP is currently $21.43 trillion. A drop of 30% would mean a value-loss of more than $6.4 trillion (for context, the economic relief bill signed by President Trump this afternoon is worth about $2 trillion). 
  • If the outbreak worsens due to relaxed social distancing measures, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate even greater economic losses.
  • Economists can calculate the average value of one life saved using a model called the value of a statistical life. It’s a fuzzy metric used by some government agencies that is based on how much a person is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death. Right now, that figure hovers around $10 million.
  • “If we could prevent a million deaths, at the usual way we value [them] of around $10 million each, that’s $10 trillion, which is half of GDP,” says James Hammitt, a professor of economics in Harvard’s health policy department. 
  • University of Chicago economists have arrived at a similar conclusion: they’ve found that under “moderate” social distancing measures, 1.7 million lives and at least $7.9 trillion could be saved. 

Big number: The average cost of a hospital stay for a mild case of pneumonia is $9,763, according to Peterson-KFF analysis (pneumonia is commonly associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus). The median total cost balloons to $88,114 for the most severe cases that require more than four days of ventilator support. Seven million hospitalizations for patients with mild cases would cost more than $68 billion. If 17% of those patients required ventilator support, as was the case in one Chinese study, the cost of hospitalizations alone could add up to a staggering $161 billion, and that’s before the cost of other health complications related to the virus is accounted for. 

Crucial quote: “Anything that slows the rate of the virus is the best thing you can do for the economy, even if by conventional measures it’s bad for the economy,” University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee told the New York Times

Key background: In some ways, all of this discourse is more than a century old. A new paper released yesterday found that during the1918 flu pandemic—the closest historical analogue for the current coronavirus outbreak—cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively to slow the spread of the virus through social distancing and isolation of cases suffered no greater economic damage than those that didn’t. “On the contrary,” the authors write, “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experience a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic.” Seattle, Oakland, Omaha, and Los Angeles, for instance, implemented stronger containment measures than Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Philadelphia and all saw a much larger surge in job growth after the crisis was over in 1920. 

Tangent: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested earlier this week that grandparents might be willing to die to preserve the economy for their grandchildren. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” he said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” His and Trump’s comments sparked a backlash among progressives on social media on Tuesday, when the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet trended on Twitter as users voiced their fears of the pandemic, and of the government’s response to it. “I’ll let Wall Street flat line before my grandma does,” wrote one Twitter user. 

Sarah Hansen, Forbes Staff

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As Wealthy Depart For Second Homes, Class Tensions Come To Surface In Coronavirus Crisis

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Topline: As New York City’s coronavirus cases exploded in recent weeks, residents fleeing to second homes have come under intense scrutiny and push-back, prompting officials in multiple states to create highway checkpoints screening for New Yorkers and a national travel advisory for the entire Tri-state area, highlighting the dramatic roles class and wealth will play in the pandemic. 

  • With over 56,000 coronavirus cases in New York, privileged New Yorkers with secondary homes are fleeing the City with massive effect on vacation home communities: the population of Southampton has gone from 60,000 a few weeks ago to 100,000 and rental prices in Hudson Valley rocketed from $4,000 to $18,000 per month—posing a threat to small-town hospitals that are ill-equipped to handle caring for high numbers of coronavirus patients.
  • In wealthy New England island communities like Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island that are heavy with secondary homes and short on hospital infrastructure, officials are going so far as to cancel all hotel, Airbnb and VRBO reservations while stationing state troopers and the National Guard to maintain flow on islands and, in the case of Rhode Island, instating 14 day mandatory quarantine on all people traveling to stay in the state from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.
  • As outrage has grown at the privileged fleeing the city while middle and working classes remain confined in New York City apartments, there’s been social media clapback at ostentatious displays of wealth in isolation: Geffen Records and Dreamworks Billionaire David Geffen ultimately deleted his Instagram of his $570 million megayacht captioned: “Sunset last night..isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everybody is staying safe” after it sparked outrage on social media.
  • New York City’s poorer boroughs are hit hardest by coronavirus: Brooklyn and Queens, where median income is  $56,015 and $64,987, respectively, remain the epicenter of COVID-19, compared to Manhattan with average income of $82,459, which has been less permeated by the virus and is home to many of Manhattan’s wealthiest enclaves—and those most likely to have residents with second homes elsewhere.
  • On Saturday, President Trump said he was considering quarantining parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, then, backed down and issued a domestic travel advisory for the tristate area that discourages residents of these states from non-essential domestic travel after “very intensive discussions” at the White House on Saturday night, said Dr. Anthony Fauci on CNN today: “The better way to do this would be an advisory as opposed to a very strict quarantine, and the President agreed.”
  • “Due to our very limited health care infrastructure, please do not visit us now,” reads a travel advisory from Lake Superior’s Cook County in Michigan, exemplifying vacation towns’ plea to travelers and second home owners across the country to stay away. 

Background: Coronavirus cases in the United States have skyrocketed to 124,000, with deaths doubling from 1,000 to 2,046 in two days. Since those with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic for days, their presence in remote communities may be deadly, as they can spread the virus and wreak havoc on rural hospitals. The clash between wealthy and poor, also creates state-versus-state hostility, as federal support is limited and essential to states overcoming coronavirus.

Alexandra Sternlicht, Forbes Staff, Under 30

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Moody’s Downgrades South Africa To Junk

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Credit ratings agency Moody’s has downgraded South Africa to junk status on day 2 of the country’s nationwide lockdown.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic reform plans have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic. The downgrade adds salt to injury for South Africa as it currently struggles with a recession it slipped into in early March.

“The unprecedented deterioration in the global economic outlook caused by the rapid spread of the coronavirus outbreak will further exacerbate South Africa’s challenges” said Moody’s.

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