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S. Africa not enchanted by glitter of gold price hike

Here in the stockroom, the world rush to buy gold is being viewed with some delight - but mostly skepticism.

South Africa is the world's largest noncommunist producer of gold, and the buying spree that has sent the price of bullion soaring in recent weeks can only help the local economy. Gold sold at near $500 per ounce Sept. 7, up some 70 percent from the two-year low it had reached less than three months ago.

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Even though the South African economy is heavily dependent on gold, government officials here continue to warn of tough economic times ahead.

Driving that point home, the government raised the general sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent without warning this month. The tax hike is intended to bring government revenues closer to the level of expenditures; revenues this year have trailed expenditures, partly because of the gold price.

The tax increase will boost the prices of almost everything to South African consumers. It will be most felt by blacks, who have lower incomes than whites and who are suffering the most from rising unemployment.

As analysts here see it, the only bright news in the gold price increase is that even should it soon fall back, as most expect, it will likely not sink to the previous ''floor'' of around $300 per ounce. This will provide modest improvement in the balance of payments, which has been forecast to show a record deficit this year, due partly to the falling value of gold export sales.

Although gold may be traded in a higher price range than in the immediate past, the average price so far this year remains low compared to the previous two years. In 1980 the gold price averaged $612 per ounce; in 1981 the average price was $460 per ounce.

The price increase in gold began in mid-July on signals that interest rates in the US were falling. High interest rates and a strong dollar tend to make other investments more attractive than gold, while falling rates make gold more appealing.

Just as that surge in the gold price appeared to have run its course, fears mounted of an international banking crisis. Gold again benefited, being perceived as a ''safe'' place for investment during a period of economic uncertainty.

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The latest push upward in the price of bullion has come from investors concluding that the International Monetary Fund, meeting in Toronto, will set off a new wave of worldwide inflation by making more loans available to debtor nations.

Any of these factors might have been expected to spark an increase in the price of gold, analysts here say. But combined, they have produced a bandwagon effect that South African gold analysts have little confidence will continue.

''People buying gold right now see a new world economic priority emerging, that of protecting the banking system instead of fighting inflation,'' says a gold market analyst in Johannesburg.

He feels it is too early to draw that conclusion, and even if it proved accurate, ''The recovery in the gold price has been so very rapid that I don't see it being sustained over the short term.''

Economist Johan Cloete of Barclays National Bank also expects the price of gold to decline, although not back to the previous low. Mr. Cloete's economic forecast for South Africa remains bleak. He does not expect the scenario to be much affected by the kind of modest improvement in the gold price he expects once the current wave of buying subsides.

Mr. Cloete predicts the South African economy will achieve no appreciable growth over the next year to 18 months. Meanwhile, unemployment will rise and inflation will continue to pinch consumers.

Even should the present gold price improvement be sustained, South Africans would probably not feel much benefit for some time, Cloete says. The government's economic policy is to improve the balance-of-payments picture. Any extra gold revenues would likely go to lessening this year's deficit, rather than to stimulating the economy or creating jobs, says Cloete.

The main beneficiaries of the higher gold price may be the South African mining houses. The South African rand depreciated as the gold price dropped. Local mining houses sell their gold for dollars, and the depreciation has meant they are getting far more rands for every dollar made from selling gold. In rand terms, the mining houses are earning nearly as much from gold at the present price as they did in early 1980.

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