Africa's natural resources are a potential gold mine

Earth's poorest continent has good economic prospects, writes Jenne Mannion

Tony Blair this week announced the launch of a new body that will monitor the progress of the West's pledges to Africa. Staffed by figures such as Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof, the panel will hold developed countries to account on promises to tackle problems such as poverty and disease.

At the core of their work is trade. Many African countries actually have good economic prospects - particularly given the demand for natural resources from India and China.

Some countries in Africa are reaping the benefits of supplying natural resources such as oil, gold and diamonds to China and India. Africa produces 46 per cent of the world's chromium, 48 per cent of its diamonds, 29 per cent of its gold and 48 per cent of its platinum.

Mining, agriculture and tourism are the flywheels of Africa's economy, says Investec Asset Management strategist Michael Power. Collectively, these generate more than 80 per cent of the foreign exchange earned by most African nations.

South Africa is Africa's largest and most developed market, accounting for 10.4 per cent of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. The next two biggest are Egypt (0.8 per cent) and Morocco (0.3 per cent).

Others, such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast, are tiny in the global context and shares in these countries are more difficult for private investors to access.

Jonathan Asante, an emerging markets fund manager at First State Investments, believes the best opportunities exist in South Africa, where the broader market has made a 122 per cent gain in the last three years in sterling terms, to 23 June, according to Lipper. Except for in Egypt, he has not invested in the other markets for eight years.

South Africa offers many cheaply valued stocks, Asante says.

Furthermore, as the rand's value has depreciated by around 15 per cent since January, investments are cheaper for foreigners. "The rand was previously overvalued, but is now trading at a fairer level," he says.

Asante adds that Africa's gold stocks are among the world's cheapest, which should be of particular interest to those concerned about global inflation and keen to use gold as a hedge. He holds AngloGold Ashanti in his fund for this reason.

However, the big threat is political corruption. Although Thabo Mbeki's more sensible governance has stabilised the South African economy, Asante says the big risk is that Jacob Zuma could become the president.

Zuma was accused of raping an HIV-positive woman and saidhe could reduce the chances of infection by having a shower after unprotected sex - Asante says a Zuma presidency would lead to turmoil.

Other risks are more cyclical, such as rising interest rates, which could derail progress in the stock market, Asante says.

Gary Potter, a fund-of-funds manager at Credit Suisse Asset Management, adds that the South African stock market is benefiting from an increase in foreign direct investment, and increased global liquidity.

Although there has been a recent correction in global stock markets, investors are still looking for areas to invest in. South Africa had been less of a beneficiary than other areas, so could benefit from increased inflows in the future, he says.

While Asante and other such managers are reluctant to invest in other African countries, Investec has launched a fund specifically to invest across Africa. The Investec Pan-Africa Fund is an offshore Guernsey-domiciled portfolio launched last year.

Managed by South Africa-based Roelof Horne, half the portfolio is invested in companies listed on the South African stock market. The next biggest markets are Egypt (12 per cent), Nigeria (8 per cent) and Tunisia and Mauritius (4 per cent each). The fund holds some African bonds, andinvests in the markets of Namibia, Morocco, Ghana and Botswana.

However, resource stocks account for only around 14 per cent of this portfolio. Rather, major sectors within the fund include financial stocks, industrials and consumer, goods and services.

Power says it is important to look beyond commodities, agriculture and tourism, because these high-profile sectors tend to be the preserve of multinationals or, with oil and some minerals, the states.

"Generally speaking, their revenues and so profits are too strategic to be shared with outside portfolio investors," he says. There are, however, exceptions, he adds, citing Mauritius Sun Resorts, Kenya's Sasini Tea or AngloGold Ashanti. By and large however, these three sectors are considered "royal game."

Power believes a better strategy is to find a country where these three flywheels are in good shape, and then invest in the companies that benefit as a result of the consumer spending that emerges from these core activities.

Better opportunities arise from investing in areas such as banks, brewing and cement, he says. Given Africa's recent privatisation wave, he also sees potential among telecommunications. He calls these areas the market's BBCTs.

Within the portfolio, banking stocks include FirstBank and General Trust in Nigeria, Banque de L'Habitat in Tunisia, CIB in Egypt and BMCE in Morocco. Banks had performed well so far this year due to consolidation.

Among cement companies, the Investec Pan-Africa Fund holds Aveng in South Africa. Cement sales growth here remains strong and is underpinned by substantial plans to spend more on infrastructure. Among telecoms it holds Orascom in Egypt.

However, Power warns the BBCT sectors offer little or no protection against a devaluation in the currency. "Consequently, where a nation is living well beyond its means and is running a large current account deficit, even great profit growth may not be able to compensate for the haircut to capital values that a sharp fall in the currency would entail."

Asante cites one of his favourite South African stocks as being the South African mass-market clothing retailer Edgars, which trades on a very low share price relative to its earning and pays a high dividend.

Edgars has very capable managers; however, it lends money to its customers to buy clothing. This could give rise to bad debts, he says. Nevertheless, this is one of the indirect beneficiary companies of the boom in resources that has resulted in a brighter outlook for the stock market.

How to get into Africa

It is difficult to invest directly in African-specific portfolios. The main fund available is the Investec Pan-Africa Fund which is based offshore. However, because African markets are tiny in a world context, collectively representing less than 1 per cent of the global stocks markets, financial experts do not recommend that private investors should hold a big exposure to Africa within their portfolios. Rather, it is better to gain exposure to these markets through broader emerging markets funds, they say.

* Gavin Haynes, a portfolio manager at Whitechurch Securities, in Bristol, says this is a lower-risk strategy as your exposure is diversified across several areas.

* His preferred funds in the emerging markets are First State Global Emerging Markets Leaders, Lazards Emerging Markets and Baillie Gifford Emerging Markets.

Among the broader emerging markets portfolios, Gary Potter, a fund-of-funds manager at Credit Suisse Asset Management, is impressed with First State Global Emerging Markets Leaders, Aberdeen Emerging Markets and JPM Emerging Markets.

* If you prefer to focus on the energy theme and are looking for local expertise in South Africa, Investec offers its Global Energy Fund, managed by Tim Guinness and the Investec Global Gold fund, which is managed by Daniel Sacks.

* Alternatively, Old Mutual South Africa is an investment trust with a decent performance track record that specialises in the country.

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