Economic uncertainty levels have hit an all-time high

The current political and economic climate has contributed to some of the highest levels of uncertainty seen for decades, say PwC economists in their latest Global Economy Watch.

Indeed, in recent years, uncertainty has been keeping business leaders busy. CEOs have responded in several ways –from insuring against the potential costs of cyber attacks, to stress-testing their operations and finances under alternative economic scenarios.

PwC Senior Economist Barret Kupelian says: “Businesses that have invested resources in such areas are likely to be better prepared for a future that remains highly uncertain. According to our CEO Pulse Survey, 30% of business leaders expect at least one crisis to hit their business within the next year.”

The impact of uncertainty cuts across all sectors of the economy, affecting households, businesses and financial markets. The key effects are:

  • Households: uncertainty can – at least temporarily – reduce consumer spending to safeguard against potential falls in income. Typically, this also leads to a boost in precautionary household savings. In the US, for example, household savings increased by around 5 percentage points during the financial crisis, from 3% to 8% of personal disposable income.

  • Businesses: uncertainty can push businesses to cut back on production, investment and employee compensation. In particular, large capital projects which tend to have a high degree of irreversibility may be particularly sensitive to high levels of uncertainty.

  • Financial markets: in uncertain situations, investors require a higher rate of return on their capital through higher risk premia. This means that the cost of credit could increase at times when perhaps the central bank decreases its policy rate, which is the usual action taken when the economy slows down. At times of uncertainty, capital also tends to flow from riskier to safer asset classes.

All of the above have significant cumulative impacts on the economy. The International Monetary Fund estimates that a one standard deviation increase in uncertainty is associated with a 0.4 – 1.3 percentage point decrease in output growth.

Dr Roelof Botha, Economic Advisor to PwC (Southern Africa), says: “A cursory study of South Africa’s disposition with regard to the threat that uncertainty poses to economic growth and job creation confirms the causalities identified in the latest PwC Global Economy Watch.” In fact, South Africa provides a clear-cut case study of the damage that policy uncertainty can do to an economy.

Ever since 2009, South Africa has suffered an astonishing decline in a variety of indicators of competitiveness that are associated with public sector corporate governance standards, incorporating the economic policy domain.

Recently ratings agencies were swift to downgrade the country’s foreign exchange-denominated sovereign debt, although the two largest ones (Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investor Service) still regard the rand-denominated debt as investment grade.

In addition, recent reshuffles in the cabinet have wiped more than R80 billion off the market capitalisation of South African banks, whilst Government’s latest onerous mining charter also significantly reduced the value of resource stocks. Furthermore, investment in new productive capacity in the economy remains under pressure, with the figure for the first quarter of 2017 more than 10% lower than in the third quarter of 2014.

Regarding household consumption expenditure, which is the mainstay of aggregate demand in the South African economy, the signs are also ominous, with expenditure on durables on a steep downward trajectory, having shed 13.5% of its real value since the 2nd quarter of 2013.

“Hopefully, the Government will soon take note of the correlation between policy uncertainty and economic performance and begin to embark on a policy approach based on due consultation with the private sector as well as a less regulated business environment.”

Dr Roelof Botha

The first implication for business is that known uncertainties can be planned for and mitigated against. This can be done either by buying insurance or by using other sophisticated methods like financial instruments to insure against these risks.

Secondly, businesses can enhance their preparation for unknown uncertainties by simulating hypothetical events and assessing their effects on the balance sheet as well as day-to-day operations. For example, in financial services this is done through scenario planning and stress testing, techniques which are increasingly being used in the non-financial services sector.

Finally, policymakers can also influence levels of uncertainty in an economy. An example is the US Federal Reserve which, since the financial crisis, has been lengthening its analysis with the aim of increasing transparency on monetary policy decisions. It's important that policymakers mitigate market uncertainty by putting in place a coherent, transparent and well-communicated strategy.

Kupelian concludes: “Policymakers have an important role to play as they can reduce levels of uncertainty by ensuring any future changes to the regulatory environment are as gradual and predictable as possible, while retaining the flexibility to act quickly if a major crisis does strike.”

For more details, please see this month’s Global Economy Watch at www.pwc.com/GEW.

Contact us

Sanchia Temkin
Senior Manager
Tel: +27 (0)11 797 4470
Email

Follow us