Investors gambling on Zim polls

Faisal Nasir flew from London to take a gamble on the future of Zimbabwe's economy this week, and he was not alone.

He found himself in a room full of other such "gamblers" and stock-market investors from around the world who have been watching Zimbabwe and are now thinking this could be the time to put down the money, particularly with elections around the corner.

"Timing is always the question. Do you go in before or after the election?" Nasir asked. "My bet is the time is now, before this market and prices [of shares] start going up. If the economy grows to even half of what it was, you are talking rich pickings."

Nasir manages funds for investors based in the Middle East and was among more than 140 investors who met in Harare this week to seek out opportunities on Zimbabwe's booming stock market.

According to Imara, the fund that hosted the event, more than 60 international institutions attended, with the number of guests reaching an all-time high.

"Rerating of the Zimbabwe market is under way," said Tino Kambasha, executive director of Imara Zimbabwe. "This is happening worldwide, but is especially evident across the South African investment community. New perceptions of risk and reward are taking hold."

Foreign funds
In a global economy that has stagnated in many places, large foreign funds are eager to find a new home for money and the year-on-year growth in Zimbabwe's share prices have not escaped their radar.

According to Imara, in the 12 months since its previous conference, some stocks have doubled. Delta, the country's largest brewer and a unit of SABMiller, has seen its market capitalisation rise from $836-million to $1.7-billion. Telecoms operator Econet has grown from $677-million to $1.1-billion over the same period.

This has drawn the attention of large South African funds, according to Kambasha.

Among them are Investec and Allan Gray, which, brokers say, are becoming increasingly involved on the local market.

Four years ago, foreign investors were rare on the local market. Now they account for about 80% of the trades on the exchange, according to data from the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange.

After the South Africans, Americans are the second largest group of investors looking at Zim­babwe. Asian and Japanese investors are also getting involved and Middle Eastern money is also floating around. Zimbabwe is seen as one of a group of sub-Saharan markets likely to grow rapidly.

Investors well informed
"Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe are what a lot of investors are looking at," Nasir said. "South Africa, not so much. You can't see too much growth there."

Investors have long been fed a steady diet of bad news about Zimbabwe, which should make its market a hard sell. But Kambasha said investors were well informed.

"Questions from representatives of foreign institutions indicated in-depth understanding of the Zimbabwe market, the policy environment and the potential for strong growth in several sectors, including mining, agriculture, banking, retail and services," Kambasha said.

"Visitors drilled down into levels of detail that suggest they are not only interested in general terms in Zimbabwe's growth potential, they are [also] here to do business."

The Zimbabwe stock market got off to a bright start this year, rising 20.3% in January alone, the fastest growth rate on the continent for that month.

The market overcame a temporary dip to go on an extended record-breaking rally, and is now up 40% since the start of the year and more than 60% higher than its level this time last year.

Cheap market
The whole market is valued at $5.4-billion, a bargain for an exchange that houses most of the country's biggest industries. Compared with similar companies in South Africa and Kenya, Zimbabwean firms are seen as cheap.

"The market is cheap, attractively cheap," a South African investor, Colin Greene, said. "The idea is to take a position now and sit in there for a while."

But the impending election also clouds the outlook – Finance Minister Tendai Biti says uncertainty alone may have knocked 3% off the economy this year.

But investors seem convinced a "credible" election is possible, according to one foreign investor who did not want to be named.

"It can't possibly be worse [than the last election] and people may be ready to accept a credible, as opposed to a free and fair, election. We saw this in Kenya."

Although many local business groups have called for a firm date for elections to end the uncertainty, some companies do not seem to be too concerned about it.

Pearson Gowero, head of Delta, said elections had in fact been good for business in the past.

  "If our experience is anything to go by – and we've had eight elections over the past 13 years – on all those occasions, consumption has been enhanced," said Gowero. He joked that it might have something to do with politicians seeking to win over voters.


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