Latest petrol price hike accelerates cost of living crisis for embattled consumers

By Neesa Moodley

South Africa’s cost of living crisis just reached a new high with the news that motorists will be hit with yet another petrol price hike following the announcement by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy announcing the official fuel price adjustments for February 2024, showing a jump in the price of both 93 and 95 unleaded petrol as well as diesel prices, as of Wednesday 7 February 2024.

Petrol prices have gone up by 75 cents per litre, which means consumers are now paying R22.92 per litre for 93 Unleaded petrol, up from R22.17 in January, and R23.24 for 95 Unleaded, up from R22.49 in January — as petrol inches back to R25.00 per litre — figures last seen in October 2023 when prices peaked at R25.86 per litre — reaching a high not seen since July 2022 when petrol prices reached an all-time peak of R26.74 per litre. The price of diesel goes up by between 70 and 73 cents a litre.

The Automobile Association said that the movement in international oil prices is contributing a significant percentage to the increases, while the weaker average rand to US dollar exchange is adding an impactful, but smaller, margin.

With international oil prices and the rand exchange rate expected to be stable on an annual average basis in 2024 — and food price inflation forecast to moderate further — consumer inflation is expected to average around 5.2% compared to 6.0% in 2023. Lower inflation with a possibility of lower interest rates later in the year, could provide much-needed support to households, with regards to spending ability and confidence levels this year.

According to the 2023 NIQ Consumer Outlook Report for South Africa, people lived in a financial pressure cooker last year, with 70% of those surveyed already feeling as though they were living in a recession, while 76% said the increased cost of living was to blame for their financial struggles.

Christie Viljoen, economist and senior manager at PwC in SA points out that South Africa is a consumer-driven economy with more than 60% of GDP attributed to private final consumption.  “As such, when household finances are under pressure, economic growth is under pressure.

“This pressure on disposable income is evident in the dwindling retail sales growth, with real growth for the 11 months to November 2023 at 1.5% lower than the previous year, while passenger car sales have also contracted in 2023,” says independent economist Elize Kruger.

Neil Roets, chief executive of Debt Rescue says that the decline in personal disposable income is a red light that shouldn’t be ignored, as this usually goes hand in hand with a spike in household debt.  “Consumers need lower inflation and lower interest rates. The former is key because most of household spending is from disposable income,” he points out.

The results of the latest Altron FinTech Household Resilience Index (AFHRI) released on 18 January 2024, show that South African households remain under severe financial pressure, mainly as a result of the restrictive monetary policy stance by the South African Reserve Bank (Sarb). The ratio between household disposable income and household debt costs is the worst-performing indicator.

“After increasing consistently since 2016, this ratio took a hefty knock in the second quarter of 2020 induced by the Covid-19 lockdowns, but then quickly recovered to a multi-year high. The reciprocal of this ratio, i.e, debt costs to income, has risen from a low of 6.7% in the fourth quarter of 2021 to 8.9% in the third quarter of 2023 — an increase of some 33%,” says economist Dr Roelof Botha, who compiles the index on behalf of Altron FinTech.

Botha points out that the country’s benchmark prime lending rate has been raised consistently over the past two years, to almost 12% — the highest level in 14 years. This, even though the consumer price index is comfortably within the Sarb’s target range for inflation of 3% to 6%, and there are clear signs that inflationary pressures have receded since the second half of 2023.

On the bright side, Botha says lower interest rates will almost certainly lead to a new growth trend for the AFHRI, but the lingering effects of higher debt levels and subdued wage growth will be felt during the first half of 2024.

Viljoen adds that salaries and wages failed to keep up with inflation during 2022 and 2023, resulting in a decline in the buying power — about 5% cumulative — of consumers. This has resulted in households being unable to purchase the goods and services that they previously could afford based on their specific income.

“Consumers are in the worst financial shape they’ve experienced for years, battered by high interest rates, increasing levels of debt and salaries that cannot keep up with inflation,” says Roets.

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