Difficult year

Isaac Moledi

Isaac Moledi

Economic experts have painted a tough and gloomy picture for 2008. They warn that high interest rates and slower economic growth globally will see consumers feeling the pinch and forced to tighten their belts.

Stanlib's chief economist, Kevin Lings, says: "It's a tougher year ahead - with more difficult conditions than we have seen over the past few years".

He says interest rates, here and abroad, will dictate market moves. Lings says we cannot separate our local outlook from global views, trends and events.

"What happens in the US and other markets affects the South African market. Globally, the developed world is slowing and the question for emerging markets is, will they hold up?

"We see higher risk being attached to some emerging markets like South Africa and lower returns than we have seen for the past four years," he says.

The US remains a key factor and there are concerns that it will slip into a recession.

Lings says the reasons for this are a weak housing market, higher interest rates and inflation, and general lack of confidence.

While recession is unlikely here, Lings sees a definite economic slowdown.

"Interest rates are high here and we believe they will remain high for most of the year."

Inflation remains problematic - well over 8percent in the short term and moving closer to 6percent by the end of the year.

With pressure on food prices (a global trend), wages and electricity charge increases, short-term inflation is mostly reflecting cost pressures.

Add to the equation rising medical and education costs, and the inflation picture does not look so healthy.

What should hold up well this year, says Lings, is fixed-investment spending and more infrastructural projects, but this won't temper all of the downside.

Are there any opportunities in the bleak outlook?

Lings says: "Yes. While earnings of many companies will be under pressure with stretched consumers, companies with quality earnings could be an opportunity in 2008."

He says investors must look out for companies that can hold onto their prices, offer products consumers have to buy such as basic necessities, and those who will benefit from the infrastructure spend.

Infrastructure spend is a global trend and is likely to pick up over the next few years.

"With the rand under pressure and global interest-rate trends ahead of South Africa, local investors may see opportunities in offshore markets.

"The key is interest rates. It's a cautious and defensive start to the year, but if conditions start improving and rates bottom out, investors need to look for companies that will benefit from these conditions," says Lings.