Economic Thoughts: The contrarian windfall Funk

I don’t know about you, but I am getting ready for my next fix. Prof De Kiewiet after decades of much study & contemplation promised us years ago (1946) that SA progresses by way of political disaster and economic windfalls. We have had our fair share of political disasters (serially in recent years), and the last solid major economic windfall is already more than ten years ago.


Time to right the balance. We are entitled to our next windfall, getting into the spirit of enduring Xmas goodies that now seems to reign the land. We could do with some nice windfall showering us in free cash flow, as always unexpected but on cue, as it has been by now non-stop for 150 years in our modern era. Why assume windfalls have to end sometime, considering our rich natural mining endowment and a world quite capable of finding or losing its way, even if only temporarily, either way giving us rich assists to prop up our dismal own efforts?


In the 2000s decade, it was China’s induced global commodity supercycle, and America’s induced global capital flooding, that eased the sweat on our communal brow. In the 1990s, it was political forgiveness and platinum developments. The 1980s started and ended with gold price spikes (the middle being indescribable horrific), the 1970s gave us global oil & currency crises & leveraged gold booms, the 1960s gave us major investment inflows, the 1950s the Free State gold fields, and so back to the first diamond find in the 1860s Barkley West.


So really, we are eight years down range from the start of our current series of horrible encounters, starting with Eskom load shedding in early 2008. And a decade of such uphill is about as much as one can endure, never mind the serial slapstick masquerading as politics managing this country. Time for a change.


It may be, of course, that the horrible decade, as much in politics as economics, has to be completed first. So Zuma remaining ANC leader till the leadership fisticuffs of late 2017, and the turning of the windfall wheel possibly close, but as yet no cigar. In any case, onsets are supposedly surprise events, they don’t allow easy pigeonholing, and will materialise as it pleases them.


But on cue, please, on cue, for we have continued to show a total disregard for making our own luck, by NOT reforming the labour market, the education system, the civil service, the social budget priorities (salaries?), the patronage dependencies and infrastructure priorities. The high maintenance, high expectations, low delivery model full of unaddressed conflict.


There is of course an excellent case to be made (made daily) that many of us don’t want change. Why give up effortless freebies in exchange for hard work and far harder politics? It ain’t natural, as people with firsthand experience will tell you honestly, but dried-eyed.


And so our default option remains political disasters (inevitable?) to test our collective mettle in baptisms of social fires, and economic windfalls to bail us out and keep us a going concern defying global audiences incredulousness.


Can that guarantee windfalls? Of course not. And no windfall is ever the same. Always something new to drive things, though vaguely reminding of the alleged old Oppenheimer golden rule betting on gold AND diamonds longer term. The first because of the infinite capacity of global government’s getting things wrong over time (scaring locals witless everywhere and thereby hugely favouring imagined safe havens). The other for the infinite capacity of man & womankind for indulging their human vanity. Never mind the “being forever” blurb.


SA has done better, adding base metals (iron ore, copper), more precious metals (platinum) and energy (uranium, coal) to this quiver. And we are far from near finished, it seems. To which we can still add fluctuating global fortunes, serially triggering capital flow floods richer than any commodity boom ever invented. At least in modern times.


The bigger question is therefore regarding windfalls whether commodities and high finance are completely mined/played out globally to periodically, serially, episodically give us artificial windfall assists?


If yes, a golden era of 150 years is now foreclosing on us, no more easy windfall assists, and we genuinely like South Korea, Germany, Singapore or Kenya have to start making our own luck by beneficiating our one great remaining unexploited luck (population, overwhelming young, and willing to take on anything, except that education effort could be better?).


Alternatively, no, not for long yet, as our natural riches and the world’s capacity for folly haven’t ended yet. And thus will our windfall era continue, not having ended yet, though the next instalment precariously uncertain in terms of timing and nature. But most of us being miners, farmers & hunter-gatherers at heart we can handle such volatility?


Endowment-wise, one next windfall has already been fingered (Karoo shale gas, Crassus/Midas kind of quantities), but we remain a few hiccups away from full exploitation. Been there, done that? Even if ever more challenging?


As to the world at large, her quest for enduring youth and happiness is ever lasting, coming up with political & financial innovations guaranteed to yield ever richer adventures, from which our table should also benefit, provided we side-step the Zuma decay that is so copiously & effortlessly being injected into many of our common institutions, making them less fit to fully benefit from such episodic global follies.


But one hears they are working on the succession, so rest easy, the year is young, and so much positively screams out to be happening next, surely something for us, too?


On to our next windfall. It is our birthright! And it is still summer, too, if mainly offering us drought, not what is wanted.