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Johannesburg, 25 June 2019 – Although the performance of the metals and engineering (M&E) sector during the first quarter of 2019 was disappointing, recovery underpinned by stronger regional and international demand appears to be on the horizon, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa (SEIFSA) said this morning.

SEIFSA Chief Economist Michael Ade said although the optimism SEIFSA had anticipated at the beginning of 2019 had waned against the backdrop of the constriction of the sector, which saw its output dropping during the first quarter of 2019 when compared to the first quarter of 2018, the Federation nevertheless remains optimistic that the external environment holds a great deal of potential for the sector’s exports and ultimate recovery.

“The sector’s recovery will be driven by stronger regional demand from the SADC region and the rest of Africa, underpinned by the newly-launched African Continental Free Trade Area, and globally from Europe, Asia and the Americas. In addition, the slowly-improving international commodity prices will also provide a strong basis for the M&E cluster to improve on output,” Dr Ade said.

Dr Ade attributed the sector’s contraction during the first quarter to continued softening of global economic activity, with trade and manufacturing showing signs of marked weakness against the backdrop of heightened trade battles driven by geopolitical dynamics.

Locally, the sector’s growth was choked by a weak domestic environment and load shedding, which also negatively impacted on the growth rate of the mining, transport, electricity, trade and construction sectors.

Despite of the challenging start to 2019, Dr Ade said there is hope that the sector will ultimately recover, albeit at a slower pace and a lower rate than usually forecast.

“Internationally there has been heightened policy uncertainty, including a recent re-escalation of trade tensions between major economies, accompanied by a deceleration in global investments and a decline in confidence, which in turn weighed on the local currency, dragging down emerging markets as capital flows from investors move to the safety of the US dollar in expectation of better returns. Undoubtedly, the downside to the production growth in the M&E sector will be tempered by a generally difficult operating environment, but the expectation is for the comparatively weaker exchange rate to provide leverage over time and perk up export volumes through relatively lower prices, also impacting on production,” he said.

Commenting on the domestic operating environment, Dr Ade said despite the prognosis being less robust, primarily as a result of slowly-improving but volatile supply-side dynamics underpinned by regressing business and consumer confidence, SEIFSA remains positive about the sector’s long-term outlook against the backdrop of the decision by Moody’s to keep South Africa’s investment rating above sub-investment grade.

Although the decision by Moody’s augers well for existing and new investments, Dr Ade cautions that the positive outlook depends on continuous policy reforms and initiatives aimed at promoting real gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) from the general government, public corporations and private business enterprises.

Dr Ade said this was important, given the dismal performance of GFCF in Q1 2019, decreasing by 4.5 percent, its fifth consecutive decline from Q1 2018.

Dr Ade said notwithstanding the decline in real GDP in quarter 1 of 2019, there was a corresponding net growth in production in the broader manufacturing sector, with preliminary data showing the sector cumulatively growing by 2.5 percent, despite the dismal performance of its M&E sub-sectors comprising roughly 45 percent.

“Although the expectation is for the M&E sector to rebound and improve during the course of the year, we are cognisant of the difficult operating environment, hence the moderate forecast of 1.6 percent growth for 2019,” Dr Ade said.

SEIFSA is a National Federation representing 23 independent employer Associations in the metals and engineering industries, with a combined membership of 1600 companies employing around 200 000 employees. The Federation was formed in 1943 and its member companies range from giant steel-making corporations to micro-enterprises employing fewer than 50 people

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