W(h)ither Zimbabwe

Johannesburg – Business executives and economists warn that 2017 will probably be worse for Zimbabwe than the financial difficulties, cash shortages and curtailed access to capital that were experienced in the country in 2016.

The silver lining is that some companies have approved new investments for 2017.

Several others are struggling in an economy with stringent import rules that is dominated by company failures and retrenchments.

Economic growth in Zimbabwe is projected to be 1.7% in 2017, up from about 0.6% last year, according to Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa.

He said “agriculture and mining are to drive overall growth, with sector growth of 12% and 0.9%, respectively, in 2017”.

Total government revenues are projected at $3.7bn against anticipated total expenditures of $4.1bn, leading to a national financing gap of $400m.

Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is estimated at over 80%, but the government argues that more than half of the country’s populace is employed in the informal sector.

Zimbabwe has been in deflation over the past two years, but food shortages have started to emerge and this is pushing up prices.

Both TM Supermarkets, which has a partnership with Pick n Pay, and OK Zimbabwe have taken a knock from the import restrictions imposed by the government earlier this year.

Food shortages in 2017

Retail executives told City Press that constrained industry capacity, coupled with the stringent import rules, could lead to food shortages in 2017.

Terrence Yeatman, managing director of Spar Zimbabwe, said: “We are currently stocked up with half local supplies and the other half is foreign suppliers but we are now pushing for our own manufactured brands to ease the supply constraints. We have seen some delays in getting stock after the import measures.”

Spar Group South Africa has moved out of Zimbabwe, citing difficult operating conditions, and the stores it was running have now been transferred to the local Spar group.

A manager with another retail chain said that, although retailers were still seeing continued use of cash by shoppers, this was likely to change in 2017, with current trends showing a shift to plastic money.

The government has allayed fears of a bloated foreign currency crisis, with Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor John Mangudya saying the government continues to import US dollar notes for the country’s requirements to pay for electricity and fuel.

Chinamasa said there would be no fuel shortages as the government prioritised fuel suppliers in terms of foreign currency allocations.

“We have actually had to use money in the nostro accounts to pay for the importation of physical cash,” said Chinamasa.

Nostro accounts are bank accounts held by banks on behalf of their corporate clients for the purposes of receiving export proceeds and they are also used to pay off international transactions.

Finance managers said these were being interfered with by the government, which also requires that half of export proceeds be converted for use inside Zimbabwe.

Most business executives are uncertain of how 2017 will pan out and there are fears that the government will start to tighten regulatory and fiscal controls.

At the height of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis in 2008, the central bank impounded corporate accounts to shore up government finances and to settle pressing obligations.

“If this cash-shortage situation does not improve, we may see the government starting to impound company accounts for foreign currency. This will be a blow to the economy because it also heightens the risk perception, which is already bad at the moment,” said a corporate executive.

In 2017, the government is expected to finalise the takeover of mining land belonging to Zimplats and ferrochrome producer Zimasco.

Officials insist that the excess land claims are being taken over so that they can be allocated to new investors, and the Chamber of Mines says the effect of this will be more pronounced in 2017.

Long-term prospects

Although most of Zimbabwe’s corporates are facing strong headwinds, some are seeing beyond the 2016 problems and are looking forward to the long-term prospects with investments earmarked to boost operations and to grow productivity.

Impala Platinum, cement maker PPC – which recently commissioned a new plant in Harare – and OK Zimbabwe are among the few pouring in money.

OK Zimbabwe will open some new stores in the country, while Implats has invested in a mine and its plans for a smelter facility will continue in 2017.

Bindura Nickel Corporation managing director Batirai Manhando said the nickel miner and processor expected to “complete the smelter project in the next financial year”, as the company has already “purchased most of the equipment” required.

“We have reduced volume but increased the quality of the ore. We will look at cost performance with a view to optimising,” he said.

This shows that cost-cutting will be a major focus area for Zimbabwean businesses in the new year as they seek to protect profit bases.

Economists said this could also translate into more lay-offs and retrenchments as capital holders protect earnings potential.

Said economist Moses Moyo: “The year 2017 is looking less encouraging from a business and economic perspective because of an environment that is looking worse and worse. It will also likely be a difficult year for trade unions, with some companies likely to intensify lay-offs and others set to scale down or close shop.”

The Chamber of Mines has said that it will not afford a salary hike in 2017, while economists say more companies are likely to lay off workers in line with the expected slump in revenue and profit generation.

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