South Africa: Managing the economic crisis

South Africa: Africa's Largest Economy  Source: www.thecommonwealth.org

Africa’s largest economy, with US$276 billion in GDP, is the continent’s rising power.  With 48 million people, it is not the continent’s most populous, with a lower population than oil-rich Nigeria (155 million) and Egypt (80 million), the world’s most populous Arab nation.  But South Africa is richer than these countries, in spite of its more skewed income distribution — South Africa has a Gini index of income inequality of 57.8, similar to Brazil’s, and worse than Egypt’s 34 and Nigeria’s 43.7.   And, with unemployment of 23%, this regional power has substantial structural challenges.

A national election in April-May 2009 occurred smoothly, after an intra-ANC power struggle resulted in the resignation of President Mbeki, post-Apartheid South Africa’s second president, following Nelson Mandela, the country’s George Washington and a major moral force in the world.  The ANC holds nearly two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, lording over a few much smaller opposition parties.  The ANC, which has held power for fifteen years, has much more to do to overcome the country’s nagging social problems and unleash its growth potential.

Fitch Ratings affirmed South Africa’s sovereign ratings this week, with the foreign currency rating of BBB+, the same as Libya’s ratings, but higher than all the other sixteen African nations Fitch rates.  South Africa is rated the same as Mexico, a notch higher than Russia, and two notches higher than Brazil and India.  Its credit strengths include low, though rising, public debt and good, though not stellar macroeconomic performance.  The economy grows less rapidly than other BBB sovereigns, expanding an average of 4.7% per year in the five years through 2007.  Its public debt is on the rise, given much needed infrastructure spending and a severe skills shortage.  Its banking system is strong relative to other emerging market economies (EMEs).  The economy has experienced only a modest slowdown as a result of the global economic crisis.  South Africa’s ratings were given a Negative Outlook in November 2008, along with many other EMEs, as Fitch concluded that the so-called “decoupling” of these economies from what was going on in the developed world was not a reality.  Since then, South Africa seems to have weathered the storm fairly well, with capital inflows resuming, though Fitch is taking a wait-and-see attitude.   South Africa’s wide current account deficit, at over 7% in recent years, financed in part by volatile portfolio capital, leaves the country vulnerable to external shocks.

Fitch published a report on South Africa this week, and its accompanying press release can be found below. 

“Fitch Affirms South Africa at ‘BBB+’; Outlook Remains Negative   

27 Jul 2009 6:23 AM (EDT)


Fitch Ratings-London-27 July 2009: Fitch Ratings has today affirmed all of South Africa’s sovereign ratings. The country’s Long-term foreign currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) is ‘BBB+’ and the Long-term local currency IDR is ‘A’, while the Short-term foreign currency IDR is ‘F2’. The Outlooks on the Long-term foreign and local currency IDRs remain Negative. Fitch has affirmed the Country Ceiling at ‘A’.

“South Africa is weathering the global recession and credit crunch quite well compared to its rating peers,” says Veronica Kalema, Director, Fitch’s Sovereign group. “Although GDP will fall by 1%-2% this year, this will be far less than most ‘BBB’ category sovereigns. Political risk has also eased since April’s smooth transfer of power to President Zuma. However, the post-election political landscape and its implications for policy is still unfolding, at a time when the budget deficit is rising sharply and the current account deficit, while diminished, remains large and presents continuing financing challenges.”

South Africa’s ratings have been on Negative Outlook since November 2008 when Fitch took negative rating action on a number of major emerging markets in the face of the sudden and fast deterioration of the global economic environment in the second half of last year. South Africa has been affected mainly through trade and capital flows channels; there were large portfolio outflows in Q408 and a sharp weakening of the currency. Though portfolio flows have since returned and the rand has recovered most of the ground lost since March 2009, the combined impact of global recession and a domestic cyclical downturn will be more broadly felt in 2009. Fitch’s earlier forecast of recession has been confirmed, but the agency now forecasts that GDP will contract by 1%-2% in 2009.

Revenue shortfalls mean the budget deficit could approach 6% of GDP in the current fiscal year (FY09: April 2009-March 2010) and remain high, albeit declining, in the subsequent two years. Fitch therefore expects the government debt ratio to rise from a low of 27% in FY08 to around one-third by FY10. External debt ratios are also forecast to rise as borrowing is stepped up to finance public sector investment and the current account deficit (CAD).

Several years of prudent fiscal policy give South Africa fiscal space to weather a temporary increase in the budget deficit without the debt ratio exceeding ‘BBB’ category medians. However, the increase in debt of the broader public sector, which includes non-financial public enterprises, will be much starker, as infrastructure spending is stepped up. In the longer-term, this investment will help the country ease some of the structural constraints to a higher growth potential, which will be key to improvement in the sovereign rating.

Falling inflation and slower private credit growth in response to earlier monetary tightening is also allowing a monetary stimulus. Interest rates have been reduced by 450 basis points since December. This will help support growth in H209 and into 2010. In addition, due to tighter regulation and supervision, the South African banking sector has been relatively insulated from the global credit crunch and although banking sector asset quality and profitability are worsening in the economic downturn, the sector is better placed than most “BBB” country banking sectors to support the recovery.

Some of the imbalances in the economy are starting to ease, with credit growth slowing sharply and domestic inflationary pressures abating. The CAD is also forecast by Fitch to narrow, though to a still relatively high 5%-6% of GDP. As this will not be fully covered by increased public sector borrowing and foreign direct investment, financing will still rely on portfolio flows, presenting a persistent risk to macroeconomic stability given continued volatile global risk appetite. High wage pressures also present a challenge to public finances, inflation and competitiveness.

A smooth political transition after the fourth post-apartheid general election, the most vigorously contested so far, has reduced short-term political uncertainty, strengthened democracy and should ease investor concerns as the country navigates the downturn. However, political risk has not diminished completely. Expectations have been raised and sporadic riots are a reminder that service delivery, which is a priority for the new government, has the potential to threaten political stability unless effectively addressed.

South Africa’s ratings could come under further downward pressure if economic recovery is weaker and more protracted than Fitch currently expects, leading to a worsening of key credit indicators. A weakening of the policy environment would also be ratings negative. However, if the country navigates the downturn over the next 12 to 18 months without a sharp deterioration of its credit metrics and with macroeconomic stability intact, the Outlook would be revised to Stable.

Contact: Veronica Kalema, London, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7417 6336; Richard Fox, +44 (0) 20 7417 4357.

Media Relations: Peter Fitzpatrick, London, Tel: + 44 (0)20 7417 4364, Email: peter.fitzpatrick@fitchratings.com.

Fitch’s rating definitions and the terms of use of such ratings are available on the agency’s public site, http://www.fitchratings.com. Published ratings, criteria and methodologies are available from this site, at all times. Fitch’s code of conduct, confidentiality, conflicts of interest, affiliate firewall, compliance and other relevant policies and procedures are also available from the ‘Code of Conduct’ section of this site.”

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