Warning over petrol prices, inflation and interest rates in South Africa

 ·16 Oct 2023

South Africans may feel far removed from the conflicts in the Middle East, but economists warn that the country can’t escape the ripple effects and consequences of war.

The eruption of what economists call the “Israel-Hamas war” in the Middle East last week added layers of complexities to markets that threaten to drive energy prices higher while heightening the risk of further interest rate hikes and higher inflation here at home.

The main area of contention in this particular analysis is oil.

Oil prices hit around $95 a barrel in September due to tightening supplies, but eased to under $85 a barrel in early October as market tensions eased.

This easing of prices has put petrol and diesel prices on track for a cut in November. However, this does not factor in the risk profile for the weeks and possibly months ahead.

Economists have warned that with the Israel-Hamas conflict dominating headlines over the past week, markets have again moved into high risk and uncertainty, pushing oil prices higher.

At the start of the new week (Monday, 16 October), oil prices are once again above $90 a barrel, driven by tensions around the war.

According to economists at the Bureau for Economic Research, this is because Iran now risks being pulled into the conflict, with the United States alleging that the major oil producer had a hand in setting up the war.

This brings the risk of retaliation into the picture, the BER said.

“Oil output in Iran would not only be impacted in the event of Israeli strikes on the country but also due to the possible reimposition and/or tightening of Western sanctions against Iran.

“The Iranian regime has not only financed Hamas for many years, but the suspicion is also that the county may have helped with the planning of the Hamas attack on Israel that sparked the outbreak of war,” it said.

RMB chief economist Isaah Mhlanga said that the war not only holds significant risks for oil but also for the local and global economy.

“Iran is a major oil-producing country and one of the new members of the BRICS+ countries. The US has alleged that Iran was involved in the attack on Israel by Hamas. That allegation puts Iran on the firing line for more US sanctions that could be extended to any country that trades with it,” he said.

“This increases the risks to the global and South African economy from a geoeconomic, geostrategic and geopolitical perspective, with negative implications for the outlook for inflation, monetary policy and economic growth.”

Mhlanga said that the longer the war goes on, the greater the risk that it expands to other nations – either directly or indirectly – particularly in the Middle East.

“A possible expansion of the war to the broader Middle East will drive energy prices higher, particularly oil prices. As an oil importer, the immediate impact on the South African economy will come through higher fuel prices and overall inflation,” he said.

While inflation and interest rate projections are, for now at least, are broadly unchanged, Mhlanga said the risk profiles have shifted.

“The risk of a rate hike in November is higher now relative to last month,” he said.

The last hold on interest rates in September was a close call, the economist noted, with the Reserve Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee voting to hold 3-to-2. The tone from the central bank has also been hawkish.

“A sustained rise in oil prices will drive fuel prices and inflation higher than our current forecast, which will also imply a higher risk that the SARB will hike policy rates,” he said.

“Oil futures markets are not pricing in the possibility of a major shock in energy prices, which means they don’t see the war extending beyond Hamas and Israel. That is precisely where the risks lie, in that if a major oil-producing country is drawn into the war, oil markets will respond negatively,” he said.

Read: A ‘special tax’ could bring the petrol price closer to R10 a litre in South Africa

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter