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South Africa reported its largest current-account surplus on record last year as import demand was suppressed by the economy recovering from the impact of the coronavirus and the value of gold exports rose to the highest since at least 1960.

The balance on the current account, the broadest measure of trade in goods and services, widened to a surplus of 3.7% of gross domestic product, or R227-billion, from a revised 2% in 2020, the South African Reserve Bank said in a report on Thursday. The ratio of the surplus to GDP is the highest since 1987.
The current-account surplus shrank more than expected in the fourth quarter to an annualised surplus of 1.9% of GDP, or R120 billion-rand, from a revised 3.5% in the previous quarter. That’s less than the 2.5% median estimate of 12 economists in a Bloomberg survey.

The quarterly surplus was the sixth in succession, the longest streak since 2001.
The record annual surplus may boost the rand, which has strengthened 5.9% against the dollar this year. That’s as investors look for less risky emerging-market assets after the war erupted in Ukraine and sanctions were imposed on Russia.

The rally in export commodity prices, stemming from supply shocks caused by the conflict, could help boost the surplus this year. Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said Wednesday in a statement it will also “provide added support to the local mining sector and a possible windfall to revenue collections.”

The positive annual balance was largely driven by a trade surplus that jumped to a record R448-billion, from a revised R289-billion in 2020. On a quarterly basis, the surplus narrowed as the value of merchandise imports increased more than exports, which surged to an all-time high, the central bank said.

The deficit on the services account, under which income from tourism falls, increased 47% to R66.2-billion in 2021. That’s as several countries shuttered international borders for business and leisure travelers at various stages during the year in a bid to prevent the spread of the disease.

The shortfall on the nation’s primary-income account, which reflects outflows due to dividends and interest payments to foreign shareholders, widened to R118-billion in 2021 from R92.6-billion.

The central bank’s quarterly projection model in January showed it forecast a surplus of 3.8% to GDP for 2021 and 0.4% for 2022.

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