Windhoek-The South African budget will probably appease the rating agencies.
The Minister of Finance (MoF), Pravin Gordhan did his best to balance conflicting forces (in more ways than one) and came up with a politically palatable and yet, fiscally sound budget.
This means that SA’s foreign currency sovereign rating is safe … for now.
Political risk events such as a cabinet reshuffle that results in Gordhan losing his job, may still derail the rating, because it will create the perception that the SA government is not serious about fiscal consolidation.
By fiscal consolidation we mean that expenditure is controlled and reduced wherever possible; revenue does not fall away and that the result is lower budget deficits and a stabilisation of the debt-to-GDP ratio.
Financial markets’ reactions were fairly muted, even positive. The rand has strengthened since the budget was delivered and is currently at ZAR/USD 12.90.
Bond yields have also strengthened and are down about 10 basis points with the R186 at 8.67 percent.
The equity market remains virtually at the same levels. The property market initially did not like the increased withholding tax on dividends, but recovered when investors realised the effect would be small.
For instance, a yield of 10 percent pre-5 percent increase will now be 9.5 percent post-5 percent increase. It is not negligible, but it is not a game changer.
The revenue measures announced in the 2017/18 budget will raise an additional R28 billion for the fiscus. The new top marginal income tax bracket will raise an additional R16.5 billion; higher dividend withholding tax of 20 percent an additional R6.8 billion; fuel levy and sin taxes an additional R5.1billion – with sugar tax and carbon tax coming soon.
This means that the MoF expects to raise R1.41 trillion in revenue. This amounts to 30 percent of GDP.
The biggest sources of revenue are taxes on income and profits (i.e. individuals and companies), which contribute 59 percent of revenue and VAT, which contributes 36 percent.
There is no doubt the South Africa is a highly taxed nation. It was disappointing that there is a seemingly lacklustre approach to reining in spending.
The MoF expects to spend R1.56 trillion which is 8.2 percent higher than the previous year and amounts to 33 percent of GDP.
More than a third, in fact 35 percent, of spending is absorbed by the wage bill, which amounts to a staggering R550 billion – about three times the size of Namibia’s total GDP.
Another third of spending goes to subsidies and transfers, which includes social grants to 17 million South Africans.
For many this is their only source of income and means of support for their families, which means that the budget is already a major means for redistribution of income.
The deficit is expected to be 3.1 percent of GDP this coming fiscal year and will then reduce to 2.6 percent over the next two years if things go according to plan.
This means that total debt will stabilise at about 48 percent of GDP. For credit rating purposes 50 percent is the magical number. therefore the deficit and debt metrics are in favour of a “stay of execution”.
However, the 48 percent is for net debt. Gross debt will still run at 52 percent plus.
Furthermore, the fiscus is exposed to guarantees and contingencies amounting to roughly R1 trillion. This is not debt, but only potential debt if the entity on behalf of which these guarantees were given defaults on its debts.
These entities are mostly SOEs – the Eskoms and Sanrals of the world. The status and (mis)management of SOEs could still prove to be the Achilles heel of the SA fiscus.
A glimmer of light for Namibia is tucked away in the SA budget documents that show estimates for outgoing payments from the SACU pool are up sharply.
This could prove to be a game changer for the Namibian fiscus and the economy at large. It will relieve pressures in more ways than one.
*Floris Bergh is the Chief Investment Officer: Equity & Asset Allocation at Capricorn Asset Management