Why Gold’s Fall Is No Big Deal for South Africa

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South Africa is the world's biggest gold producer after China, so you would expect this year's 15.6 percent drop in gold to have a big impact. Instead the FTSE/JSE All Share Index is flat for the year.

According to the emerging markets economics team at HSBC, tumbling gold prices may give South Africa's exports a knock, but the negative impact will be more than offset by cheaper oil imports.

"The impact of the slump in gold prices is not as dramatic as it seems and it is happening concomitant with falling global commodity prices, including oil, for which South Africa is a large importer," HSBC's Murat Ulgen and Di Luo wrote in a research note about the country.

Gold prices have fallen sharply this month as part of a global sell-off in commodities, with investors shifting towards equities and other assets. Multiple investment banks, including Goldman Sachs and Citi, have downgraded their 2013 outlooks for bullion.

(Read More: Goldman Flip-Flops on Gold)

Although South Africa is a major exporter of gold, Ulgen and Luo said its economy is in fact more sensitive to the price of oil than bullion.

"The recent steep fall in gold prices raises concerns on exports and external dynamics. While this is clearly negative, gold trade has been declining in importance and terms-of-trade is also sensitive to oil prices given the large size of oil imports."

Ulgen and Luo calculated that a $100 fall in average gold prices would lead to a $0.7 billion decrease in annual South African exports, worth 0.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

In comparison, a $10 fall in the price of a barrel of crude oil would reduce South Africa's annual import bill by $2 billion, or 0.5 percent of GDP. Between 2007 and 2011, the country imported an average of 196 million barrels of petroleum per year.

Gold's importance for South Africa has been declining, with production sinking in the last two decades. Production fell 20 percent between 2007 and 2011 alone, before a sharp fall-off last year due to strike-related unrest. Gold is now a proportionally smaller part of South African exports, with iron ore and platinum group metals increasingly important.

"Gold production has been slumping, owing to cost competitiveness, lack of investments, industrial unrest, etc… According to the latest mining production series of Statistics South Africa that starts in 1998, gold production has been a constant drag on actual overall mining output," said Ulgen and Luo.

Nonetheless, a report by Fitch Ratings found that South Africa-based miners were the most exposed to falling gold prices, as they suffer from high and rising production costs.

"The cost of production for South African miners has been propelled much faster than for other producers, due to labor-intensive mining practices combined with sharply rising wages. Substantial increases in energy costs have also added to the trend. The impact has been masked by rising prices in recent years, but is now likely to be much more obvious in company results as gold prices decline," wrote Peter Archbold, senior director of corporates at Fitch.

Archold said that South Africa's Harmony Gold was among those most exposed to falling bullion prices because it has the highest labor cost among its peers.

"In contrast, miners that use less labor-intensive practices - such as open-pit mining - are better positioned to cope with falling prices," he said.

Morgan Stanley analysts Christopher Nicholson and Leigh Bregman agreed South African gold equities look "particularly unattractive" given weak metals prices and high operating gearing.

"South African gold producers remain upper half of the cost curve producers (Harmony in particular ranks among the most highly operationally geared producers in the global gold industry), and thus remain most exposed to a weak gold price," Nicholson and Bregman wrote in a research piece this month.

-By CNBC's Katy Barnato