Rand plumbs new lows on fears of global recession, Moody’s downgrade

The rand has reached a new all-time low against the US dollar, as investors flock to safe haven assets amid fears of a global recession caused by Covid-19, as well as the downgrade of South Africa’s credit rating to “junk” by Moody’s.  

Overnight, the currency weakened to a new low of R18.27/$. It has now plunged about 4{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} since Moody’s lowered the country’s sovereign credit rating to junk status on Friday.

The rand breached the R18/$ mark for the first time ever against the greenback in the early hours of Monday. And while the local unit initially seemed to hold off from weakening further, it reached its new record lows on Wednesday night after Wall Street lost more than 4{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} overnight. US president Donald Trump indicated that the death toll in the country would surge, Business Insider reported.

The rand started Thursday’s session at R18.22/$. By 08:45 it strengthened slightly to R18.14/$. Just before midday it was trading at R18.20/$.

The rand is not the only emerging market currency feeling the heat. “The ZAR is not on its own and other emerging market currencies are also trading weaker. The ongoing worry about the Covid-19 pandemic and the extension of lockdowns in the US and the EU has market players very nervous,” Wichard Cilliers of TreasuryONE told Fin24.

“The growth across the world will be very negatively impacted by the virus and thus are market players very nervous to take on emerging market risk.”

On Thursday morning the rand’s emerging market peers were also in the red against the dollar, with the Russian ruble down 1.4{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2}, the Mexican peso trading 0.91{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} weaker and the Turkish lira 0.45{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} weaker. 

But while the Covid-19 pandemic has caused widespread EM weakness, the rand has been the worst performing emerging market currency, noted Bianca Botes, executive director at Peregrine Treasury Solutions.

This, she said, was largely due to its greater levels of liquidity and the use of the rand as a proxy for emerging markets.

“According to data from MSCI, emerging markets have dropped as much as 25.45{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} year-to-date against the USD. By comparison, the rand has weakened 27.7{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} year-to-date against the dollar,” she added.

Fears of global recession

Economist Jee-A van der Linde of NKC Africa Economics said that the rand’s weakness could also be attributed to mounting fears of a global recession.

“[Wednesday] marked the sixth day since South Africa announced a 21-day lockdown period – we estimate that, outside China, economies in a severe or partial lockdown account for nearly 50{e93887a69cdd95d753f466db084bbc3aa0067124675315461d28d68a72842cc2} of global GDP – restricting business and spending,” he said. While some regional lockdowns in China are expected to lift this month, they took a “heavy toll” on the world economy, he added.

Botes, meanwhile, doesn’t see pressure on the rand letting up. “IMF and World Bank funding is rapidly becoming a reality, as Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has met with other African finance ministers via video conference to discuss the potential of this approach in assisting Africa to fight the coronavirus crisis,” she noted.

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