Last week, Statistics SA published a bleak GDP update for South Africa that saw the domestic economy shrink 7% year on year in 2020. While it was perhaps a little better than expected, it was still a huge contraction.
But that was last year and is now old news.
A more relevant question is how are we doing right now?
I am going to unpack two real-time indicators of our economy below, with their pros and cons, and hopefully this will give us a sense of how things are across our country.
1. Yoco Small Business Turnover Index 
Yoco offers point-of-sale card machines to predominantly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across South Africa. The business has taken its networks real-time payment data, consolidated it, and published it via a portal on its website.
Pros: As SMEs are generally more fragile and cyclical than larger businesses, if this index is doing well, then the odds are that the larger, listed businesses are doing at least equally well. Also, there is little data out there on our SME sector, thus this data reveals a key blind spot in many datasets.
Cons: Visa and Mastercard’s results over the last 12 months show that the pandemic has accelerated the move from (contact-based) cash payments to (contactless) card payments. This index could be overstated due to this shift. It may also be over or understated due to Yocos own success in signing up new clients.
Yoco’s Small Business Turnover Index is currently (as at March 12) tracking at 91% (in other words, 9% below baseline).
Rolling the data back a month to February 12, the index was at 95%. Thus it appears to have weakened somewhat over the month, though it has held over 100% during periods this year so far.
Provisionally, Gauteng is only 97% (3% below baseline), while the Western Cape has dropped to a miserable 80% (20% below baseline).
Interestingly, the Free State (101%), Eastern Cape (106%), Northern Cape (107%), KwaZulu-Natal (111%) and North West province (127%) are all tracking above 100%.
If you have a look at the index, it has tracked in aggregate greater than 100% for most of the period from late January to the present. Thus, perhaps this is just a bad time to check it, with mid-month seeing lower nominal payments than one would see just after pay day?
2. Googles Covid-19 Community Mobility reports
Google tracks the mobile phones running its Android software, and if we assume that their movement and locations are good proxies for the people they belong to, then this data is a neat real-time indicator of both activity levels and behaviour in an economy.
Similar to Yoco, but global in its reach, Google has aggregated the data and published it in a dashboard that you can search across countries.
Furthermore, it tracks this activity relative to pre-Covid benchmarks.
Pros: Mobile phones are great proxies for people and Androids major market share in emerging markets (EMs) makes it a statistically significant proxy for EMs like South Africa (Apple tends to have a higher market share in most developed markets).
Cons: The data excludes anyone not using an Android phone or any region that Google is not in, such as China. Finally, the aggregation definitions are hidden to us as well as anything else granular; we have to trust that Google has classified shops correctly from offices and so on.
South Africas current Google mobility data can be summarised as follows:

  • Retail & recreation: Down 11%; not boding well for our shopping centres.
  • Grocery & pharmacy: Up 9%; looking great for Shoprite and Clicks.
  • Transport: Down 30%; one of the reasons why there is still no traffic in Sandton.
  • Workplaces: Down 2%; higher than expected but coupled with residential below indicates many are still working from home.
  • Residential: Up 8%; great for DIY, building materials and residential property demand and prices.

Read: Record new home loans for Standard Bank (Mar 12)
How does this compare to another emerging markets?
Countries make for imperfect comparisons, but let us use Brazil as a comparison partly because it is an EM with commodities, but also partly because it did not lock its economy down anywhere near as hard as South Africa did:

Week of March 7 Brazil SA How are we doing?
Retail & recreation -51% -11% 40% better than Brazil
Grocery & pharmacy 4% 9% 5% better than Brazil
Transport -36% -30% 6% better than Brazil
Workplaces -9% -2% 7% better than Brazil
Residential 10% 8% 2% worse than Brazil

The more people move out of their houses (the more they are at work, moving around and shopping) surely the better an economy is performing?
Assuming this line of reasoning is correct, South Africa is doing materially better than Brazil right now.
What this tells us
The above real-time stats are far from perfect and far from representative, but they both point to a conclusion: South Africas economy has recovered quite a bit but is still operating below pre-Covid levels.
Despite this, global comparisons do highlight that things could be much, much worse and that perhaps, for an emerging market, our country is faring alright.
Keith McLachlan is a small cap analyst.