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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

S&P cuts South Africa debt score to junk

Moody's may follows as country teeters on the edge of economic abyss

Trucks drive past an Afrisam Slagment plant in Vanderbijlpark, an industrial city south of Johannesburg, South Africa. The country's debt has been cut to junk by S&P. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Trucks drive past an Afrisam Slagment plant in Vanderbijlpark, an industrial city south of Johannesburg, South Africa. The country's debt has been cut to junk by S&P. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

S&P Global Ratings cut South Africa’s local-currency debt score to junk at the weekend, while Moody’s Investors Service also threatened to slash its ranking to the same level, raising the risk of a selloff from global indexes.

S&P lowered the country’s local-currency rating one step to BB plus, one level below investment grade, and placed it on a stable outlook. Its assessment on South Africa’s foreign-currency debt, which it already considered speculative, was taken down one notch to BB. Moody’s opted to keep both readings on Baa3, its lowest investment grade, but put them on review for possible downgrade.

The reduction by S&P “reflects our opinion of further deterioration of South Africa’s economic outlook and its public finances”, the company said. “Economic decisions in recent years have largely focused on the distribution - rather than the growth of - national income. As a consequence, South Africa’s economy has stagnated and external competitiveness has eroded.”

Should Moody’s also downgrade the local-currency rating, rand debt would fall out of gauges including Citigroup’s World Government Bond Index, and this could spark outflows of as much as 100 billion rand (Dh25.7bn), Citigroup economist Gina Schoeman said ahead of the rating company announcements. A selloff of rand bonds - which comprise about 90 per cent of South Africa’s outstanding liabilities - would raise borrowing costs for the nation as it sells more debt to plug a widening budget gap.

“This credit action will result in increased volatility going forward as certain global passive investors need to re-balance their exposure to the sovereign credit,” Absa Investment Management said in a research note on Saturday. “Since it is likely to be the precursor to exclusion from the WGBI, investor positioning could pre-hedge by selling SA bonds and offset any positive market reaction.”

The government is considering measures over the next two weeks that will combine tax increases and spending cuts to save 40bn rand in the 2019 fiscal year, the National Treasury said.

“Government is working urgently and diligently on practical steps to provide the necessary policy certainty, environment conducive to investment, and predictability that the country so desperately needs,” it said. The Treasury will provide more information in the budget that’s due for release in February.

The rand fell as much as 2 per cent to 14.1585 per dollar Friday, and has lost 7.5 per cent of its value since the middle of the year.

Fitch Ratings on Thursday affirmed South Africa’s foreign and local debt scores at its highest non-investment grade with a stable outlook.

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Conflict in the ruling party in the run-up to its leadership election next month has hamstrung efforts to bolster Africa’s most-industrialised economy, which had its second recession in less than a decade earlier this year. Business confidence is near the lowest level in more than three decades amid allegations of corruption against state company managers and politicians including the president Jacob Zuma.

“Many economic and political problems South Africans experience are rooted in corruption, state capture and political patronage resulting in trust deficit,” said Bonang Mohale, the chief executive office of Business Leadership South Africa, which represents about 80 of the country’s biggest companies. Until state institutions are independent, the government abandons nuclear-energy plans and it provides clear mining-industry rules, “the trust deficit will persist”, he said.

While the outcome of the ruling African National Congress’s elective conference next month will be of interest to ratings companies, they will also be watching the February budget for more information on the nation’s debt trajectory.

Moody’s said it may not conclude its review until the size and composition of that budget is known and that it will assess the government’s “willingness and ability to respond to rising pressures through growth-supportive fiscal adjustments that raise revenues and contain expenditures.”

It will be “very difficult” for the South African Treasury to come up with the kind of “magic tools” needed to stop a downgrade by Moody’s, said Thabi Leoka, an economist at Argon Asset Management in Johannesburg.

“It’s 90 days or bust and they can actually make a move before the 90 days.”

The blow to Johannesburg-traded stocks from the downgrade of South Africa’s credit rating is likely to be hardest in banks and retailers, the sectors most vulnerable to local shocks.

But the impact on stocks may be limited and short-lived, said Wayne McCurrie, the head of portfolio management at Ashburton Investments Management, which oversees about US$10bn. Any slump in the local currency could benefit shares of exporters, companies with significant foreign operations and those with listings on developed-market exchanges that benefit from rand weakness, which have helped drive the benchmark index to record highs this month.

“Only about 25 per cent of our share market is truly related to South African domestic events and that’s mainly the banks, financials and retailers - the effect of a downgrade is in fact very limited on our stock market,” Mr McCurrie said.

“There will be some negative reaction, but a downgrade [was] more expected than not expected.”