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Gigaba’s glance into the fiscal abyss – SA’s latest mini-budget fails miserably

CAPE TOWN — In spite of one of these three analysts below highlighting opportunities presented by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s warts and all depiction of our dire State finances, we’re clearly in deep trouble, with no solution in sight. Political analyst, Professor Steven Friedman offers critically-needed hope, saying Gigaba’s outlining of just how dire the crisis is could be the vital ammunition change-agents need. To whit; any future finance minister who wants to shut the door on patronage, start cleaning up state owned enterprises and kick-start talks with the private sector, is now in a powerful position. What neither of the academic trio say – though it’s obviously implied – is that Gigaba’s tenure will almost certainly be very short-lived. Selling off part off Telkom to mitigate the R50.8 billion short-fall in revenue and borrowing R5.2 billion from the R6 billion contingency reserve to fund a technically bankrupt SAA are drops in the fiscal ocean. Eskom on its own can plunge the country into a long dark night, with R350 billion in debt guarantees, rising infrastructure costs, stagnant demand and huge corruption. Weasel-like words on the Russian nuclear deal show Gigaba doesn’t have the steely determination required to take on his poisonous peers and their superiors. That man is long gone. – Chris Bateman

By Seán Mfundza Muller*

South Africa’s 2017 medium-term budget policy statement represents a watershed moment in the post-apartheid economic and fiscal position. The best thing that can be said about it, is that it was at least frankly honest about the situation the country is facing. Arguably, there was no choice. The country has reached a situation where it’s no longer possible to spin the notion that public debt is under control.

In recent years, South Africa’s National Treasury has desperately, and creatively, tried to avoid making deep cuts to government expenditure, or imposing drastic revenue raising measures on citizens. It did this while still convincing investors and credit ratings agencies that public finances would stabilise.

Malusi Gigaba speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Group Annual Meetings in Washington, D.C. on October 12, 2017. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But the 2017 medium term budget makes it clear that the project has essentially reached the end of the road. The notion that national debt will stabilise has now effectively had to be abandoned. South Africa’s latest finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, effectively gave up on the debt targets set out by Pravin Gordhan a year ago when he stated that net national debt as a percent of GDP should stabilise at 47.9% by 2019/20. Gigaba announced yesterday that this is expected to be 49.1% by the end of this fiscal year, increasing to 53.9% by 2019/20.

This is a clear sign that any attempt to stabilise debt has failed. A further ratings downgrade is now highly likely. And it will be worse than the last one which only affected foreign currency debt. Gigaba’s budget proposals are likely to lead to a downgrade of the country’s local denominated debt, which will increase government borrowing costs and could lead to significant capital outflows. Even without a downgrade the medium term budget reveals that debt service costs are expected to increase from 11% of total expenditure to 15% over the next few years.

Read also: Matthew Lester: Prepare for a ‘bloodbath’ in February after Gigaba’s mini budget

Without higher revenue, that means less money to spend on government’s constitutional obligations and policy commitments. Unfortunately, the gloomy story is largely driven by a massive shortfall in revenue collection of R50.8 billion. So attempting to avoid these consequences through taxation is not looking like a feasible option.

In the current political environment, even the best case scenario is grim. In fact the country’s finances could worsen even further if the outcome of the governing party’s elective conference in December doesn’t see a return to good governance and responsible fiscal management.

Slippery slope since 2008

In the years since the global financial crisis that started in 2008, the government allowed expenditure to increase faster than growth and revenue. This was done with the hope of offsetting the short-term effects of the crisis and getting the country back onto a stable path of significant economic growth.

That led to a rapid increase in national debt relative to the size of the economy. But the failure of the economy to recover – due in part to political instability, bad decision making and poor governance – meant that this approach became unsustainable.

A collection of mixed denomination South African rand coins and banknotes sit in an arranged photo in Johannesburg. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

In the last few years successive national budgets have walked a tightrope in trying to contain the growth in debt. Planned spending has been reduced, while some tax rates have been increased and new tax instruments introduced. Amid all these manoeuvres, dramatic cuts to government expenditure, or wide-reaching increases in taxes, have been avoided.

Efforts to arrest fiscal decline were sabotaged by the removal of Gordhan in March this year. His removal meant that the institutional reputation of the finance ministry was compromised and, since it was this that had kept the country’s credit ratings intact despite increasing fiscal pressure, the country’s foreign denominated debt was downgraded to “junk” (sub-investment grade).

Storm clouds on the horizon

As if the picture wasn’t gloomy enough, numerous risks to the fiscal projections and proposals loom on the horizon. South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma continues to sit on the higher education funding report, causing further instability at universities. That leaves open the possibility that more money for university students may be needed at short notice.

Read also: Mini Budget 2017: Here are 5 worrying graphs about SA’s state of finances

And the finances of various state owned enterprises are teetering, requiring increasing government support to prop them up. Since Gigaba took over the ministry he has taken R5.2 billion from the R6 billion “contingency reserve” – which is meant to be used for emergencies, or other unforeseeable events, such as natural disasters – to prop-up South African Airways. This broke with commitments to fund bailouts using revenue from asset sales. The medium term budget cements this breach – funds used to prop up the airline will not be replaced with funds from asset sales.

But the most menacing risk is the power utility Eskom, which is propped up by R350 billion in debt guarantees, but faces rising infrastructure costs, stagnant electricity demand and successive corruption scandals linked to state capture. Due to the scale of the commitments to Eskom, it will be impossible to contain the negative consequences if its lenders start refusing to rollover its debt.

No political will

Reading between the lines of the medium term budget, there is evidently no political will at the highest levels – the president and his cabinet – to do the right thing. The only reduction in planned expenditure is a cut to the contingency reserve. But responding to rising debt by reducing money for future emergencies is emblematic of the reluctance to take braver decisions like cutting the bloated, pointless ministries seemingly introduced by Zuma to employ his political cronies and their associates.

The ConversationSouth Africa’s public finances are in dangerous territory and very difficult decisions will have to be taken before the 2018 budget if the situation is going to be stabilised. This will require politicians and civil servants who are competent and dedicated to the public interest to make bold decisions. Without such leadership the resultant trajectory will undermine the ideals and objectives of the post-apartheid era for many years to come.

Gigaba lays bare South Africa’s economic woes: will it be enough to trigger change?

By Steven Friedman*

Wittingly or unwittingly, South Africa’s Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s medium term budget policy statement places him – and champions of the market economy inside and outside the African National Congress – in a strong position and opens the way for real economic change. Whether the opportunity is taken is, of course, another matter.

Gigaba revealed that the government’s revenue shortfall is two thirds higher than expected, spending is growing, as is the deficit which will not, as promised, stabilise next financial year. And growth projections are down from a poor 1.3% to a negligible 0.7%.

South Africa’s struggling economy. More of Jeremy’s brilliant work available at jerm.co.za.

The minister announced no new measures which are likely to turn the situation around and another set of ratings agency downgrades seem inevitable. This is partly because the agencies take their cue from domestic economists and business people, all of whom see a downgrade as inevitable. The only rational response is surely that the economy is in a downward spiral and that the minister cannot or will not do anything about it.

Perhaps. But there is another way of looking at the speech which sees many of these negatives as potential economic game changers.

One reason for seeing an opportunity for change is that the speech provides more than enough grounds to begin two of the tasks which must be confronted if the economy is to turn around in a sustainable way. It provides a powerful lever for everyone who wants to resist patronage projects. And the scale of the problem does send a signal to all economic actors that a sense of crisis – the acknowledgement that the economy must change course if it’s to grow and include more people – is needed and that negotiations to change the economy are essential.

Watershed moments?

Gigaba’s speech made it clear that the argument that money is simply not available is now an understatement. One casualty might be the nuclear power project on which President Jacob Zuma and his faction seem to have set their hearts. There have been suggestions that Zuma’s primary objective in his most recent cabinet reshuffle was to insert a loyal person into the energy portfolio so that he could make the nuclear deal happen.

Gigaba is now signalling that there is no money for the project and so the reshuffle’s purpose may have been undone.

And the argument for structural change, not mere tweaking, is much stronger now than before the speech. The harsh realities he explicitly set out mean that any finance minister who wanted to shut the door on patronage, begin cleaning up state owned enterprises and kick-starting talks with other key players, such as the private sector, is in a very powerful position. This could open the way for bargaining between all the economic interests on how to grow the economy and open it up to those who are excluded.

It does not mean that Gigaba will take the opportunity. The fact that he kicked the can of change down the road during his speech, proposing no new plans for change – and that he has already granted South African Airways a bailout – seem to show that his apparent desire to please everyone leaves him ill-equipped to take any of the steps suggested here.

But, if we assume – as many people who observe him do – that Gigaba’s chief goal is to advance his political career, the numbers he quoted today suggest that he is unlikely to do that unless he can show that he did something to change the realities he described. It’s possible that the minister knows that these realities won’t change unless he takes some decisive steps.

Stage set for trade-offs?

The speech offers no solutions but it can hardly be accused of ignoring or concealing the problem. On the contrary, Gigaba made a great deal of his refusal to “sugar coat” the problem. Insisting that South Africans must know how bad it is, he added that citizens needed to understand the “challenges” because only then

(will) we … know what to do … as well as what trade-offs must be made in the public interest.

That sounds very much like an attempt to set the stage for some unpopular decisions and for engaging with key economic actors on what trade offs should be made. Clearly, a minister who hopes to please as many people as possible is not going to initiate major changes without very solid backing – the speech may well have been an attempt to get that backing.

Read also: Worse than Greece! SA world’s third-slowest growing economy in last 4 quarters

So Gigaba could be trying to set the stage for a process in which the awful state of the economy enables him to gain support from key economic actors to introduce the “trades off” he promised.

Of course, the minister may have no plans to use his leverage in this way. But, if so, the speech may have provided an important lever to those who would want him to do so. It clearly was an invitation to private economic interests to engage.

African National Congress (ANC)

If businesses take Gigaba up on the offer, they may well find themselves in a more powerful position than they imagined, given the state of public finances and of the economy. They certainly have economic reality on their side and, since the minister is not zealously attached to either of the African National Congress factions, he may well be inclined to support them if the alternative seems likely to promise his political ruin.

The ConversationThe speech showed that the economy is in crisis – it needs to change direction if it’s to serve the country’s needs. Whatever the minister decides to do, its effect will depend on how those in society who have an interest in that change choose to react. The stakes are clearly too high for them to fold their hands and wait for the minister to act.

South Africa’s finance minister admits situation is grave: but offers no solutions

By Roger Southall*

The first mid-term budget delivered by South Africa’s newish Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba was always likely to be judged largely on three issues: whether he was able to inspire confidence, what the government plans to do with the crises at the various state owned enterprises and whether he would pronounce definitively on its commitment to firming up a nuclear deal with Russia.

Whatever else Gigaba said was likely to be regarded as extra.

On balance, he did reasonably well on the confidence issue. He spoke clearly and with assurance, even with authority. To be sure, he delivered a lot of flannel. He reminded South Africans of the promises of the National Development Plan and the government’s commitment to Vision 2030; he spoke about the iniquities of the maldistribution of wealth and inequality and the government’s commitment to redistribution; he deplored “the challenges” (that overused word) faced by state owned enterprises, the high level of concentration in the private sector and the need to make the economy more globally competitive. And he inevitably he hailed the urgent need for “radical socio-economic transformation”. Words, words, words, one might say.

Malusi Gigaba’s budget statement. More of Zapiro’s work available at www.zapiro.com.

Against that, Gigaba’s speech was forthright in recognising the immediate crises facing the country. While stressing the importance of economic growth, he indicated that growth was expected to fall to 0.7% per annum, down from a previous somewhat less miserable estimate of 1.3%.

He recognised that the budget deficit was expected to increase from 4.3% from 3.1%. And he conceded that with lower economic activity government revenue was going to fall: indeed, the consolidated government deficit would climb to 60% of GDP by 2022.

Against these grim statistics, he stressed the need for greater tax morality, expenditure cuts, greater efficiency in government’s supply chain management and increased vigour in fighting corruption in state owned enterprises. And he even managed to say all this without smirking.

While it was important that he made it clear that the government recognises the mess the economy is in, he was extraordinarily light on detail about how it intended to clear it up.

The ratings agencies will doubtless be pleased that Gigaba announced no hike in corporation tax. For its part the African National Congress and its alliance partners would have been equally pleased that he announced no rise in Value Added Tax, which would hit the poor hardest. By the same token, he left it unclear – save by vague commitments to cutting costs – how the increasing gap between revenue and expenditure is to be tackled.

Raiding the piggy bank

The biggest news in Gigaba’s speech was his announcement that the government intends to sell a portion of its shares in Telkom to enable a recapitalisation of South African Airways and the South African Post Office. Many would say that he was left with little choice. While he thanked the banks for not pulling the plug on the airline by not demanding repayment of their loans, his raiding of Telkom’s piggy bank was an acknowledgement that no-one else was going to risk their money.

He also addressed the crisis in state owned enterprises by highlighting governance issues. This included the appointment of new boards for the airline as well as the state broadcaster and the need for them to recruit efficient managers and to tighten up governance and accountability.

Fine words, but equally, this was no announcement of the government drawing back from its notion of state owned enterprises as key drivers of the “developmental state”. Their current crises had obscured much that they had achieved, he said, such as the development of a pool of competent state managers.

Many would say that it’s a pity that their competence is not more evident.

If Gigaba said just enough to indicate that the government intends to do something to address the problems faced by state owned enterprises, the most glaring gap in his speech was any firm indication of how to tackle the cesspit of corruption that the state power utility Eskom has become.

Far worse than that were his weasel words about any prospective nuclear deal.

Speculation is rife that President Jacob Zuma is determined to sign off a deal to build nuclear power stations with the Russian nuclear agency, Rosatom, as quickly as possible – a deal which many reckon would bankrupt the country. Yet Gigaba chose not to calm the market’s nerves but to remain as vague as possible. Very deliberately, he chose to repeat a previous statement by Zuma that the signing of any nuclear deal would take estimates of the potential supply and demand for energy into full consideration, and would only proceed on the basis of “affordability”. Nobody is likely to believe that.

No sign of a change in direction

So, what’s to be made of this first substantive effort by Gigaba? The good news is that he didn’t try and obscure the grim financial situation that the government is facing.

But the bad news is that despite the waffle about the need for “radical socio-economic transformation”, there was nothing in his speech to indicate that the government is considering a significant change in direction.

The ConversationYes, there was the commitment to selling Telkom shares, but that was merely akin to selling the family silver to keep the household finances afloat for a little bit longer. Apart from that, there was no real suggestion that the government will start doing things differently. And there was no indication about how it intends to close the steadily increasing deficit.

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