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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

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Current Affairs

Here’s How The US Claims The Assange-Manning Conspiracy Worked

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The U.S. government has disclosed more of its case against WikiLeaks cofounder Julian Assange. It hinges on a claim he and Chelsea Manning worked together to crack a password for a computer storing sensitive government files.

An affidavit unsealed Monday outlining the case against Assange said he conspired with Manning when they discussed working together to crack a password “related to two computers with access to classified national security information.” More specifically, the password belonged to a user called FTP (not to be confused with an FTP server) on two Windows computers that Manning could access from a base in Iraq, the government said.

The FTP account wasn’t associated with any specific individual, and the government alleged that if Manning had used it to pilfer files and hand them over to Wikileaks, she could have foiled investigators looking into who was behind the leaks.

“Although there is no evidence that the password to the FTP user was obtained, had Manning done so, she would have been able to take steps to procure classified information under a username that did not belong to her,” the affidavit read. “Such measures would have frustrated attempts to identify the source of the disclosures to WikiLeaks.”

The alleged conspiracy to crack the password took place in March 2010, two months after she’d walked out of the Iraq base with classified war reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. She was later convicted and served seven years in jail for downloading tens of thousands U.S. military documents and diplomatic cables.

How passwords are cracked

The reason any password had to be cracked in the first place was the use of what’s known as a “hash.” Microsoft’s Windows operating system doesn’t store passwords in plain text. That’s to prevent hackers who find a way on to the computer from seeing and stealing them. Instead, Microsoft makes life harder for cybercriminals and snoops by turning that plain text into scrambled code. That string of letters and numbers is known as a “hash value” and it’s created when an algorithm is applied to the plain text of the password.

For an attacker to get at the plain text it’s possible to do a so-called “brute force attack.” The process for this is basic: The hacker creates a huge list of guessed passwords through the same hashing algorithm used by Windows to find a matched hash value for the hidden password. Once the same hash value is calculated, the password has been found.

Sometimes a password will be too complex for guessing to work in a short enough time frame. That’s where “rainbow tables” come in. These contain a massive number of hash values for previously calculated passwords. Hackers use them to do a quick comparison of the hash they have with the ones in the table, in the hopes that it’s already been seen before and a match is available.

“In computing terms we call this a time/memory trade-off. Rather than spend time on a task, we pre-calculate parts of it and store them somewhere, essentially trading time for memory,” says Tom Wyatt, senior penetration tester at cybersecurity provider Bulletproof. “These tables can be calculated or downloaded from various online sources, and it simply boils down to paying for storage for it all; even in 2010 this was fairly cheap and entirely possible.”

But Microsoft goes one step further in protecting those hash values by splitting them in two, storing the parts in separate files. Here’s where a little trick comes in handy: A hacker might be able to recover those two separate pieces by rebooting a Windows PC using a CD with the Linux operating system. Back in 2010, it was possible to do that and recover the full hash value.

Ken Munro, a penetration tester with Pen Test Partners, told Forbes the technique still works, as long as there’s no additional layer of security over it, such as full disc encryption. “Whilst the technique still works, it’s quite rare to find systems that don’t now have full disc or similar encryption,” he added. (Microsoft hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication). According to the government’s telling of the story, evidence suggests Manning tried, and very possibly failed, with this technique. In a footnote in the affidavit, the government said Manning hadn’t provided Assange with the full hash, only one of the two halves required.

It’s alleged Manning passed what she thought was a hash value to Assange. The Wikileaks chief then said he would pass it on to a specialist in cracking, according to chats over the Jabber encrypted communications app, as provided in the affidavit. But, as per the investigators’ claims, there was some confusion: Manning said she wasn’t even sure what she handed to Assange was the hash value they wanted. Assange messaged Manning to ask if there were “any more hints” about the hash and that he’d had “no luck so far,” according to the government account. From there it’s unclear what happened. The government admits it didn’t know whether the password was ever cracked.

Not that it changes much for Assange: The charge is that of conspiracy. If he did offer assistance to help Manning gain access to U.S. government systems and encouraged the then intelligence analyst to leak files, the charge still stands. Manning, who served seven years in jail before being pardoned by President Barack Obama, is back behind bars for refusing to testify in the investigation into Wikileaks. Her lawyer had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, couldn’t be reached for comment at the time of publication. She told Sky News yesterday that the indictment against her client showed “the kinds of communications journalists have with sources all the time.” Following Assange’s arrest, however, various journalists have said on Twitter that any incitement to hack organizations or steal documents was far from normal and risked breaking the law.

Meanwhile, the fallout from Assange’s arrest continues. According to Reuters, Ecuador’s telecommunications vice minister Patricio Real said the government’s networks had been hit by a mass of cyberattacks after it decided to revoke Assange’s asylum status. He claimed various government websites had been slammed by 40 million hacking attempts per day, double the number it typically sees.

-Thomas Brewster; Forbes Staff

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Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg Faces Mounting Pressure From 737 MAX Crashes

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Dennis Muilenburg has earned a reputation as a high-energy CEO, bicycling 140 miles a week, sometimes taking groups of employees along for high-speed bonding sessions. The 55-year-old may need every ounce of energy he’s got as he faces one of the worst crises for Boeing in over 50 years: two crashes that killed 346 people, linked to the automated flight controls of the 737 MAX and leading to the grounding of the company’s bestselling plane.

The stakes for Boeing, and its CEO, are huge. The 737 accounts for 33% of Boeing’s revenue and almost 50% of its profit, according to Berenberg analyst Andrew Gollan. Deliveries have been halted since the plane was taken out of service worldwide after the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane, airlines are demanding compensation, and the company faces scrutiny from Congress, a Department of Transportation inquiry and a federal criminal probe. The stock (BA) has fallen 10%. Lawsuits filed by relatives of the dead and shareholders could take years to conclude.

Over the past few weeks, the 34-year Boeing veteran has been traveling heavily to shore up support from airline customers and investors. An aerospace engineer by training, Muilenburg has kept a close eye on the Boeing team rewriting the faulty flight control program; last week he went up in a plane that tested out its effectiveness.

But many observers are giving Boeing and Muilenburg poor marks for their public handling of the crisis. Until late last week, Muilenburg was largely invisible and the company’s public statements, while expressing sympathy for family and friends of the deceased, were short on substance.

“I give them a B,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor of leadership at the Yale School of Management. Muilenburg needs to put a human face on Boeing, he says, and get out in public and engage with the media to try to correct misperceptions and address the many questions about what went wrong, even if he doesn’t have ready answers to offer.  

Muilenburg hasn’t shown the media sophistication of his predecessor, Jim McNerney, who’d previously helmed GE’s prized aircraft engine division and 3M. “He’s got a catastrophe as his training ground,” says Sonnenfeld.

Preliminary reports from the investigations into the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 in October and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 last month suggest that the pilots of both planes struggled to counter a flight control program called MCAS that erroneously pushed the planes’ noses down due to malfunctioning angle-of-attack sensors. After Ethiopian investigators released their report last Thursday, Boeing put out a video statement by Muilenburg in which he said Boeing accepted responsibility for the role that MCAS played as one of the “chain links” in the two accidents.

Aviation regulators in other countries have questioned the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the MCAS system and its initial reluctance to pull the 737 MAX out of service; several have said they won’t just take the FAA’s word that it’s safe to fly again, making it uncertain when the plane will return to the skies worldwide.

With the prospects of a quick resolution fading, Boeing announced last Friday it would throttle back 737 production to 42 a month from 52—a sharp reversal from its plan to raise output to 57 by the summer.

Analyst Richard Epstein of Bank of America/Merrill Lynch downgraded the stock to neutral Monday, estimating that Boeing likely won’t be able to resume deliveries for six months and won’t get back on pace until 2021, reducing earnings through 2023 before interest and taxes by $13.7 billion.

Whether Muilenburg’s job is threatened or not may depend on the stock price, says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group.

The board is loyal to Muilenburg, observers say, and his record so far has given them little reason to doubt having signed off on then-CEO and chairman McNerney’s decision to promote him to the top job in 2015 at age 51.

Engineer With Focus On Financial Discipline
US-aviation-ACCIDENT-BOEING
Workers stand under the wing of a Boeing 737 MAX airplane at the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton, Washington on March 27, 2019. Boeing gathered hundreds of pilots and reporters at its factory to unveil a fix to the flight software of its grounded 737AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The hard-charging, detail-oriented engineer presented a strong contrast to McNerney, a liberal arts major at Yale and Harvard M.B.A. who rose up through the ranks at General Electric when it was a star factory under Jack Welch. Native to Iowa, Muilenburg grew up milking cows every morning on his family farm and graduated from Iowa State before going straight to work at Boeing. Health-conscious and rail thin, he drinks Diet Mountain Dew to get a calorie-free caffeine fix and has been known to order turkey sandwiches with no mayo.

Though he’s cut head count, Muilenburg has cultivated a more positive relationship with the workforce than McNerney, who clashed with the machinist’s union and infamously joked of workers “cowering” from him.

However, Muilenburg has followed in McNerney’s footsteps with a laser focus on financial discipline, including boosting profits by wringing discounts from suppliers. Muilenburg has even gone a step further, moving to make more components in house and aiming to more than triple sales from lucrative aftermarket maintenance and services to $50 billion a year.

Like his two predecessors, Muilenberg has continued to sweeten the pot for investors, devoting roughly 95% of operating cash flow to the company’s steadily rising dividend and share buybacks.

The stock has taken off, climbing fourfold from February 2016 to a peak of $446 at the beginning of March, compared with a 63% rise for the Dow industrials over the same period. The March selloff has only pushed the stock back to where it stood at the end of January.

But to Aboulafia, the flawed design of the MCAS flight control system, combined with the continuing problems with the KC-46 tanker and delays in the crewed space-launch program are further evidence for criticism he’s leveled at Boeing for almost two decades: that the company’s focus on shareholder rewards has come with a “deprioritization and perhaps under-resourcing of engineering.”

Boeing says it’s maintained R&D spending at a steady level and has a healthy corps of 56,000 engineers.

The question of how MCAS was certified has raised concerns over whether Boeing has gained too cozy a relationship with the FAA; a wildcard going forward is whether any evidence of wrongdoing will emerge.

If whistleblowers had any damaging information we likely would have heard it by now, says Mark Dombroff, an aviation attorney at LeClairRyan and former head of the Department of Justice’s aviation division. He expects that the DoJ will seek to determine within 90 to 120 days whether there’s a case to pursue.

Aviation experts are optimistic that Boeing’s software patch and training revisions will solve the 737 MAX’s safety problems. Boeing’s disclosure this week that it logged zero orders for the MAX in March generated negative headlines, but with a whopping 15,000 total narrow-body orders placed over the past seven years, there aren’t really any airlines left with sizable needs, says Aboulafia, with the notable exception of Chinese carriers. Any trade deal between the U.S. and China that would change the balance of trade will likely include Boeing sales.

Boeing’s last major crisis came in 2013, when the 787 was grounded for three months due to battery fires, two years after the plane entered service following years of production snafus and spiraling costs. While the financial stakes were large, no lives were lost. The last time Boeing faced a safety crisis of a comparable nature to the current one was the mid-1960s, when four new 727 jets crashed in a span of four months.

Like then, Boeing faces the task of convincing a fearful public that the MAX will be safe to step into again. Sonnenfeld says Muilenberg needs to take a page from James Burke, the late CEO of Johnson & Johnson, who pulled off the tall task of convincing Americans that Tylenol was still safe after seven people were killed by cyanide-laced capsules in 1982. “It’s going to take the CEO to be out there.”

-Jeremy Bogaisky; Forbes Staff

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Jeff Bezos To Give MacKenzie 25% Of His Amazon Stake, Worth Tens Of Billions, In Divorce

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Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, announced on Thursday that he will transfer roughly 4% of the company’s stock to his wife, MacKenzie, most likely by early July. The couple are in the process of finalizing their divorce.

Those shares are worth more than $35 billion as of 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday. That would make MacKenzie the third-richest woman in the world, behind L’Oréal’s Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, who is worth an estimated $52.9 billion, and Walmart’s Alice Walton, who is worth $45 billion. She would rank as the planet’s 26th-richest person, ahead of Nike’s Phil Knight.

Jeff Bezos will remain the world’s richest person, with a net worth above $110 billion, per early Thursday afternoon stock prices. Bill Gates is the world’s second-wealthiest individual, boasting an estimated $99.5 billion fortune.

While still pending, the Bezos divorce settlement will likely be the largest in world history. Other divorces of the ultrarich include Steve and Elaine Wynn (she received an estimated $850 million settlement), as well as Bill and Susan Gross (she received a $1.3 billion settlement).

In a statement posted to his Twitter account, Jeff Bezos said, “In all our work together, MacKenzie’s abilities have been on full display. She has been an extraordinary partner, ally, and mother.”

MacKenzie posted a tweet of her own, saying, “Grateful to have finished the process of dissolving my marriage with Jeff from each other. … Happy to be giving him all my interests in the Washington Post and Blue Origin, and 75% of our Amazon stock plus voting control of my shares to support his continued contributions with the teams of these incredible companies.”

The couple filed a petition for divorce on April 4, and they expect an official decree to be issued in early July, they said in an SEC filing that outlined the transfer of shares. The filing noted that Jeff Bezos will continue to exercise voting control over MacKenzie’s shares, unless she sells them on the open market or gives them to qualifying nonprofits.

If MacKenzie transfers shares, the recipient of the stock must sign a similar agreement granting Jeff Bezos voting control.

The couple announced their divorce in January, following 25 years of marriage. Their separation stirred a tabloid frenzy, as intimate text messages between Bezos and his romantic partner, Lauren Sanchez, a TV anchor, were leaked by the National Enquirer.

Bezos subsequently published an open letter accusing American Media Inc., which owns the National Inquirer, of extortion and blackmail. AMI has denied wrongdoing.

Bezos also hired a team of investigators to determine who accessed his private messages. His consultant Gavin De Becker ultimately accused the Saudi Arabian government of illicitly gaining access to Bezos’ cellphone. Saudi officials have denied that allegation.

-Angel Au-Yeung; Forbes Staff

-Noah Kirsch; Forbes Staff

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