Pula Fund, Botswana’s diamonds investment flagship, is currently whispering economic disaster as it is dallying down the slide with an erosion of P4 billion for March 2020 from the same period of last year.
This is according to the figures in the Bank of Botswana Statement of Financial Position as at March 31, 2020. Last year March, the Pula Fund was at P51 billion and it went down to P47 billion March this year, a deficit of P4 billion.
Pula Fund is Botswana’s long-term investment portfolio established 26 years ago for the perseverance part of the income from diamond exports for future generations. According to Bank of Botswana, foreign exchange reserves that are in excess of what is expected to be needed in the medium term are transferred to Pula Fund and invested according to these investment guidelines. The Pula Fund is a Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF).
In a review for this year’s first quarter, since January 2020 the Pula Fund has been showing erosion, a trend continuing even towards March 2020 as Q1:2020 closes. The central bank has just offered its financial positon for Q1:2020 and things are looking gloomy for the much coveted Pula Fund. A deficit of over P600 million in the Fund has been recorded between the months of February and March this year according to the recent Bank financial position.
Deeper statistics shows the Pula Fund went on a downward spiral last year between the months of November and December, by a deficit of almost over P10 billion. The Fund did however find its feet, bouncing up by almost P2 billion in January this year after a huge slump last year December.
But that was short lived as February saw things tumbling down again, reminiscing the negative picture of November 2019, a pictorial illustration will show a graph pointing down as a bad sign for the most reliable Fund ever made by this country. The Pula Fund reached an all-time high of P64.3 billion and a record low of P18.7 billion in April 2003.
According to Bank of Botswana, the Pula Fund has increased substantially in value (when measured in both domestic and foreign currency) in real terms since it was established in 1994. “This reflects both a sustained period of substantial balance of payments surpluses as well as the success of the investment strategy,” said the central bank.
However, according to the Bank, there have been instances of substantial outflow: notably in the period following the establishment of the Public Officers Pension Fund, which resulted in a substantial transfer of assets from Government; while, from late 2008, the turbulence arising from the worsening global economic slowdown resulted in some erosion of the Pula Fund, due to both the adverse market conditions and outflows needed to maintain the Liquidity Portfolio at required levels.
Botswana’s total foreign assets have depleted by P11.5 billion altogether between March 2019 and March 2020. According to the Bank’s financial position, by March when looking at the Liquidity Portfolio fund; Transactions Balances Tranche went down by P5 billion from March last year and the Liquidity Investment Tranche plummeted by P3 billion. However the domestic assets saw a slight improvement.
Total Foreign Liabilities soared up while foreign exchange reserves expressed in US dollars went down by over P1 billion this was almost the same decreased in foreign exchange reserves expressed in SDR.
Botswana’s economy is now grappling with the ripple effects of covid-19 and diamond contribution to the GDP and or the Pula Fund is expected to shrink. Botswana’s story cannot be told better in gloom than when Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flow will in 2020/21 reduce by 30-40 percent while trade will shrink by about 32 percent, this comes hard for a country which has years of nursing trade deficits.
A bad song in a time of a Pula Fund or diamond reliant economy, the depletion of a depleting government’s current account could be a dawn for much coming trouble. Towards the twilight of last year the government’s current account recorded a mammoth deficit of P6.6 billion compared to a revised deficit of P485 million during the corresponding period in 2018, this cannot be helped by the sting of covid-19 on the local economy. Furthermore, the end of 2019/2020 financial year, government’s total debt was P27.8 billion, roughly 28 percent of GDP.
Minister of Finance & Economic Development, Thapelo Matsheka recently announced that Botswana’s economy is expected to decline by 13.1 percent going backward against the initial projected growth of 4 percent for the 2020/21 financial year. Matsheka further told the media that due to the effect of covid-19 the global economy will shrink by 3 percent, a reverse mode to the initial expected growth of over 3 percent.
Botswana’s economic response to covid-19 amid a rocking boat of domestic economy
According to the US think tank Milken Institute, in its production of “a hub for information, analysis, and the global response to COVID-19’s impact on Africa” and in its instalment of ‘Africa Watch’, Botswana announced US$163 million which is a 0.9 percent of GDP.
Botswana’s announced healthcare spending to respond to covid-19 is US$ 41 million. The covid-19 healthcare spending as a percentage of general government total expenditure is at 0.8 percent according to Africa Watch.
Botswana not ready to become a beggar
When the economic winds are going against Botswana’s economy, which is heavily reliant on diamond exports and reserves that comes from such precious stones, many pragmatic economists point that this country should ‘swallow her pride’ and queue for aid from monetary donors.
However, Matsheka has suggested that government has so far doubled its domestic borrowing limit from P15 billion to P30 billion. Matsheka hinted that Botswana will first exhaust all the domestic borrowing before going outside.
“This bond program will present us with an opportunity to borrow more from our local capital market and finance our deficit and projects without drawing down from our reserves or getting expensive credit facilities externally,” Matsheka told journalists in April.
Matsheka also told the media that there will be no rush to approach global funders. But many economists are already discussing the pressure that may come which will inevitably present this country with no option but to seek outside help
“We have not reached any decision as to how much we would borrow externally from institutions such as International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and African Development Bank, any other funding institution or foreign country.
But my office is currently in talks with Botswana representatives at these institutions and we will look at a number of factors before coming to a decision of who we going to borrow from and how much we going to borrow,” Matsheka said in April.
Botswana has better sovereign credit ratings, this puts it in a better position for international lenders. In Moody’s Investor Services-an international rating agency and global think tank based in London-rates that Botswana has maintained the A2 long-term local and foreign currency issuer ratings. A2 rating is the sixth highest rating in Moody’s Long-term sovereign ratings. Countries rated A2 are considered to be of upper-medium grade and are subject to low credit risk.
However Botswana has been going down in renowned credit rating agency charts recently. According to Moody’s, the corona virus has only amplified Botswana‘s already risky and vulnerable economic setup.
Moody’s say Botswana’s vulnerability comes from the limited economic diversification given its heavy reliance on a single commodity for growth, exports and budget revenues, slow progress towards economic transformation, and an increasingly rigid expenditure structure in the budget.
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Following a devastating first half of the year 2020 due to COVID-19, the global diamond industry started gaining positive momentum towards the end of the year as key markets entered into thanks giving and holiday season.
However Bruce Cleaver, Chief Executive Officer of De Beers Group cautioned that the industry is not out of the woods yet, citing prevailing challenges ahead into 2021.
The first half of 2020 was characterized by some of the worst challenges in history of global diamond trade.
The midstream, where rough diamonds are traded in wholesale and bulk to cutters and polishers, was for the most part of second quarter 2020, suffocated by international travel restrictions as countries responded to the contagious Corona Virus.
This halted movement of buyers and shipment of the rough goods , resulting in unprecedented decline of sales, in turn ballooning stockpiles as the upstream operations produced with little uptake by the midstream.
The situation was exacerbated by muted demand in the downstream where jewelry industries and tail end retailers closed to further curb the spread of COVID-19.
However towards the end of third quarter getting into the last quarter of the year, demand in both midstream and downstream started to steadily pick up as countries relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.
De Beers, the world’s largest diamond producer by value started reporting significant recovery in sales in the sixth and seventh cycle, figures began to reflect an upswing in sentiment as well as increase in uptake of rough goods by midstream.
Sales for the sixth cycle amounted to $116 Million, following a sharp downturn in the previous cycles, significant jump was realized during the seventh cycle, registering $320 million, an over 175 % upswing when gauged against the proceeding cycle.
De Beers noted that diamond markets showed some continued improvement throughout August and into September as Covid-19 restrictions continued to ease in various locations.
“Manufacturers focused on meeting retail demand for polished diamonds, particularly in certain product areas, accordingly, we saw a recovery in rough diamond demand in the seventh sales cycle of the year, reflecting these retail trends, following several months of minimal manufacturing activity and disrupted demand patterns in all major markets,” said De Beers Chief Executive, Bruce Cleaver in September last year.
The diamond mining behemoth continued to register impressive sales in the eighth and ninth cycle signaling the industry could end the year on a positive note.
The momentum was indeed carried into the last cycle of the year. The value of rough diamond sales (Global Sightholder Sales and Auctions) for De Beers’ tenth sales cycle of 2020 amounted to $440 million, a significant increase from the 2019 tenth sales cycle value.
Against what seemed like a positive year end that would split into the New Year Bruce Cleaver, CEO, De Beers Group, however warned the industry not to count eggs before they hatch.
“Positive consumer demand for diamond jewellery resulting from the holiday season is supporting the continuation of retail orders for polished diamonds from the diamond industry’s midstream sector. This in turn supported steady demand for De Beers’s rough diamonds at our final sales cycle of 2020,” Cleaver had said in December.
In caution the De Beers Chief noted that “While the diamond industry ends the year on a positive note, we must recognise the risks that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic presents to sector recovery both for the rest of this year and as we head into 2021.”
All segments of the supply chain were severely impacted by the global lockdown measures introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020.
After a strong US holiday season at the end of 2019, the rough diamond industry started 2020 positively as the midstream restocked and sentiment improved.
However, from February 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak began to have a significant impact on diamond jewellery retail sales and supply chain, with many jewelers suspending all polished purchases and/or delaying payments to their suppliers.
Rough diamond sales were materially affected by lockdowns and travel restrictions, delaying the shipping of rough diamonds into cutting and trading centers and preventing buyers from attending sales events.
These resulted in significant decline in total revenue for the business in the first six months of 2020. Total revenue decreased by 54% to $1.2 billion from $2.6 billion registered in the prior half year period ended 30 June 2019.
For the entire first six (6) months of the year 2020 De Beers Rough diamonds sales fell drastically to $1.0 billion from $2.3 billion in the prior H1 period ended 30 June 2019. Sales volumes decreased by 45% to 8.5 million carats compared to 15.5 million carats registered in the prior period.
Next month Minister of Finance & Economic Development, Dr Thapelo Matsheka will face the nation to deliver Botswana‘s first budget speech since COVID-19 pandemic put the world on devastating economic trajectory.
The pandemic that broke out in late 2019 in China has put the entire world on unprecedented chaos ,killing over P1 million people across the globe , shattering economies and almost rendering the year 2020 – a 12 months stretch of complete setback.
The 2021/22 budget speech will come at time when Botswana’s economy is still trying to emerge out of this.
National lockdowns and local travel restrictions have hit small medium enterprises hard, while international travel restrictions halted movement of both good and people, delivering by far some of the heaviest and worst catastrophic blows on the diamond industry and tourism sector, the likes of which this country has never seen before on its largest economic sectors.
As Minister Matsheka faces parliament next month, the reality on the ground is that Botswana’s national current cash resource, the Government Investment Account (GIA) is depleting at lightning speed.
On the other hand the COVID-19 economic mess is prevailing, the virus is reported to have taken a new dangerous shape of a deadly variant, spreading like fueled veld fire and causing some of the world’s super powers back to tough restrictions of lockdown.
According official figures released by Bank of Botswana, in October 2020 the GIA was running at P6 billion compared to the P18.3 billion held in the account in October 2019.
However reports indicate that the account could be currently holding just about P3 billion. The draw down from the GIA has been by exacerbated by declining diamond revenue, the country‘s largest cash cow. The sector was experiencing significant revenue decline even before COVID-19 struck.
When the National Development Plan (NDP) 11 commenced three (3) financial years ago, government announced that the first half of the NDP would run at a budget deficits.
This as explained by Minister of Finance in 2017 would be occasioned by decline in diamond revenue mainly due to government forfeiting some of its dividend from Debswana to fund mine expansion projects.
Cumulatively, since 2017/18 to 2019/20 financial year the budget deficit totaled to over P16 billion, of which was financed by both external and domestic borrowing and drawing down from government cash balances.
Taking into account the COVID-19 economic mess in 2020/21 financial year, the budget deficit could add up to P20 billion after revised figures.
Drawing down from government cash balances to finance these budget deficits meant significant withdrawals from the Government Investment Account, hence the near depletion of this buffer.
Meanwhile should Botswana’s revenue streams completely dry up to zero levels; the country would only have 11 months, before calling out for humanitarian aids and international donors, because foreign reserves are also on slow down.
During 2019, the foreign exchange reserves declined by 8.7 percent, from Seventy One Billion, Four Hundred Million Pula (P71.4 billion) in December 2018 to Sixty Five Billion, Three Hundred Million Pula (P65.3 billion) in December 2019.
The reserves declined further in 2020, falling by 2.3 percent to Sixty Three Billion, Seven Hundred Million Pula (P63.7 billion) in July 2020. This was revealed by President Masisi during State of the Nation Address in November last year.
The decrease was mainly due to foreign exchange outflows associated with Government obligations and economy-wide import requirements.
However latest statistics(October 2020) from Bank of Botswana reveal that Botswana’s foreign reserves are estimated at P58.4 billion, with government’s share of these funds significantly low.
Government has since introduced several measures to contain costs and control expenditure with the most recent intervention being the halting of recruitment in government departments and parastatals.
Furthermore, Value Added Tax has been signaled to go up from 12% to 14% in April this year with more hikes and service fees anticipated as government embarks on unprecedented domestic revenue mobilization.