Meltdown hits SA

Robert Laing

Robert Laing

The JSE's banking index plummeted nearly six percent yesterday despite past assurances that local banks are isolated from the US property market meltdown.

The rand, along with the JSE's Top-40 index and the broader All-Share index also took a hammering in sympathy with global markets.

The Alsi slid 513 points - or 1,96percent, and the Top-40 shed 419 points - or 2,05percent.

The rand was trading at R8,02 to the dollar when the JSE closed yesterday afternoon, about 1,02percent weaker than its Friday close.

"It's unsettling - we've had so much bad news lately," said Sasfin's David Shapiro.

Capitec was the only JSE-listed bank to escape yesterday's global stock market crash triggered by Sunday's news that two more Wall Street icons, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, are the latest subprime casualties.

South African banks have been largely shielded from the US subprime crisis thanks to foreign exchange controls preventing them from buying the disastrous mortgage-backed financial instruments flogged by Wall Street firms.

But, as an emerging market, South African stocks will continue to bear the brunt of the financial market turmoil as investors seek safer assets.

Bank shares recovered slightly after the morning's panic, with the index closing 2,4percent lower at 31684 points.

Capitec, a retail bank chain focused on the low income market, gained 1,6percent by closing at R32,10 a share. Worst hit was Mercantile which fell 5,9percent to 32 cents a share, followed by Investec, which fell 5,8percent to R53,68 a share.

Shapiro said Lehman's problems had long been coming and that "no one was in shock".

"We've been in this situation for over a year now," he said.

The markets had needed the adjustment. Investec, which suffered most when the subprime crisis became apparent in August last year because of its exposure to the international property market via its acquisition of UK home lender Kensington, fell 5,4percent to R53 a share.

Old Mutual, whose US operations have suffered from investments in subprime products, fell five percent to R13,34.

Of the big four, Absa's dominance of the local mortgage market saw its share fall 3,8percent to R106,75.

Nedbank fell 2,5percent to R100,20, Firstrand 2,4percent to R16,62 and Standard 2,1percent to R88 a share. - With Sapa