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04 March 2020 | Story Jean-Pierre Geldenhuys | Photo Supplied
geldenhuysJP
Jean-Pierre Geldenhuys.

As has been the case for the past five years, the latest (2020) budget paints another sobering picture of South Africa’s public finances and short-term economic outlook. Of particular concern is that this budget does not project that the government debt ratio will stabilise in the medium term (by 2022/23), which means that the current fiscal policy trajectory is unsustainable (which National Treasury acknowledges in the Budget Review). This makes a rating downgrade by Moody’s in March all but inevitable. 

In the budget that was tabled on Wednesday, the budget deficit is projected to be 6,3% in 2019/2020, while increasing to 6,8% the following year, before gradually declining to a still unsustainable 5,7% of the GDP by 2022/23. These large budget deficits contributed to large projected increases in the government debt-to-GDP ratio: this ratio is projected to increase from about 62% in 2019/20 to about 72% by 2022/23. To understand the extent of the deterioration of South Africa’s public finances over the past 12 months, it should be noted that this ratio was projected in the 2019 budget to increase to about 60% by 2022/23.

Burger and Calitz (2020) show that the government debt-to-GDP ratio can be stabilised (and fiscal sustainability can be restored) if: the gap between real interest rates and real GDP growth is reduced, and/or if the primary balance (government revenues minus non-interest government spending) is adequate to avoid an increase in the debt ratio. They then show that the debt ratio has increased over the past decade because the (implied) real interest rate on government debt has increased and the real growth rate has decreased and government ran large primary deficits, at a time when large primary surpluses were required to avoid increases in the debt ratio. 

Between 1998 and 2007, the debt ratio was reduced from just under 50% to just under 30%. This period (especially from 2002 onwards) was characterised by (relatively) high economic growth. Fast economic growth is crucial to stabilising the debt ratio and restoring fiscal sustainability. National Treasury (NT) has proposed structural reforms (aimed at reducing regulatory burdens and backlogs and increasing competitiveness in the economy) to stimulate private sector investment and growth. Given the constraints that continued load shedding will put on South African growth in the near future, as well as projected slower growth in the economies of our main trading partners, and the uncertainties associated with disruptions wrought by the coronavirus outbreak, it remains to be seen if private sector investment will increase and stimulate growth (available evidence in any event suggests that private sector investment tends to follow, not lead, economic growth). 

With growth likely to remain slow, lower real interest rates and lower budget deficits are required to reduce the debt ratio and restore fiscal sustainability. These interest rates will more than likely increase if Moody’s decides to (finally) downgrade its rating of South African government debt.

With low economic growth and high real interest rates, stabilisation of the public debt ratio means that the budget deficit must be reduced. To reduce the budget deficit, government can: (i) increase taxes, (ii) decrease spending and (iii) increase taxes and reduce spending. Given that fiscal policy is unsustainable in South Africa, it is surprising that NT decided against increasing taxes (other than customary annual increases in the fuel levy and excise taxes) in this budget – many analysts were expecting some combination of higher personal income tax, VAT, and company taxes. As reasons for not raising taxes, it cites low expected economic growth, and that most of the efforts to reduce the budget deficit in the past five years have been centred on using tax increases. Even more puzzling, the budget granted real tax relief to taxpayers, as income tax scales were adjusted by more than expected inflation. 

All efforts to rein in the budget deficit therefore rely on government spending reductions. To this end, NT is proposing to reduce government spending by about R260 billion over the next three years. This reduction in spending is comprised of a R160 billion reduction in the wage bill, and a further R100 billion reduction in programme baseline reductions. At the same time, as a proposal for wage cuts, government is allocating even more money to prop up the balance sheets of many SoCs, with R60 billion allocated to Eskom and SAA (while the Minister referred to the Sword of Damocles when referring to SAA in his speech, a more apt analogy for government’s response to the financial crises facing many of its SoCs might rather be the paradox of Buridan’s ass). While government has announced plans for the restructuring of Eskom and has placed SAA in business rescue, so far there is no feasible consensus plan to address Eskom’s mounting debts and dire financial situation, which poses a systemic risk to the South African economy. 

Regarding the proposed reductions to the wage bill, NT believes that its target can be achieved through downward adjustments to cost-of-living adjustments, pay progression and other benefits. Furthermore, the Budget Review also states that pay scales at public entities and state-owned companies (SOCs) will be aligned with those in the public service to curtail wage bill growth and ‘excessive’ salaries at these entities. We are also told that government will discuss the options for achieving its desired wage bill reduction with unions. Given the precariousness of the public finances, and the understandable objections of workers and unions, one must ask why these discussions were not already in full swing by the time that the budget was tabled? 

Regarding the proposed cuts to government programmes, NT notes that it tried to limit these to underperforming or underspending programmes, and that the largest cuts will be in the human settlement and transport sectors. But, as NT acknowledges, any cuts to government programmes will negatively affect the economy and social services; the budget speech also states that the number of government employees has declined since 2011/12, which also affects the provision of public and social services adversely (the Minister explicitly mentioned increased classroom sizes, full hospitals, and too few police officers during his speech). 

Apart from the proposed spending cuts, the proposed allocation of spending is unsurprising and reflects long-standing government priorities: spending on basic education, post-school education and training, health and social protection takes up 13,6%, 6,7%, 11,8% and 11,3%, respectively. Increases in social grants range between 4 and 4,7%, which means small real increases in most social grants (only if inflation remains subdued). Worryingly, debt service costs are expected to take up more than 11% of total government spending (and is projected to exceed health spending by 2022/23). These costs are projected to grow by more than 12% by 2022/23 (almost double the growth in the fastest growing non-interest expenditure category). These figures vividly illustrate how a high and increasing debt-to-GDP ratio limits the scope for increased spending on important public and social services. 

Unless fiscal sustainability and the  balance sheets of SoCs are restored, the scope for the government to increase spending to combat poverty, rising inequality, and unemployment will be severely limited – as would the scope for countercyclical fiscal policy, should the local economy again slide into recession. The stakes are high, and the cost of indecisiveness is increasing.

This article was written by Jean-Pierre Geldenhuys, lecturer in the Department of Economics and Finance in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences 

News Archive

Carbon dioxide makes for more aromatic decaffeinated coffee
2017-10-27


 Description: Carbon dioxide makes for more aromatic decaffeinated coffee 1b Tags: Carbon dioxide makes for more aromatic decaffeinated coffee 1b 

The Inorganic Group in the Department of Chemistry
at the UFS is systematically researching the utilisation
of carbon dioxide. From the left, are, Dr Ebrahiem Botha,
Postdoctoral Fellow; Mahlomolo Khasemene, MSc student;
Prof André Roodt; Dr Marietjie Schutte-Smith, Senior Lecturer;
and Mokete Motente, MSc student.
Photo: Charl Devenish

Several industries in South Africa are currently producing hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide a year, which are released directly into the air. A typical family sedan doing around 10 000 km per year, is annually releasing more than one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Inorganic Chemistry Research Group in the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Free State (UFS), in collaboration with the University of Zurich in Switzerland, has focused in recent years on using carbon dioxide – which is regarded as a harmful and global warming gas – in a meaningful way. 

According to Prof André Roodt, Head of Inorganic Chemistry at the UFS, the Department of Chemistry has for the past five decades been researching natural products that could be extracted from plants. These products are manufactured by plants through photosynthesis, in other words the utilisation of sunlight and carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and other nutrients from the soil.

Caffeine and chlorophyll 
“The Inorganic group is systematically researching the utilisation of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants through chlorophyll and used to make interesting and valuable compounds and sugars, which in turn could be used for the production of important new medicines,” says Prof Roodt.

Caffeine, a major energy enhancer, is also manufactured through photosynthesis in plants. It is commonly found in tea and coffee, but also (artificially added) in energy drinks. Because caffeine is a stimulant of the central nervous system and reduces fatigue and drowsiness, some people prefer decaffeinated coffee when enjoying this hot drink late at night. 

Removing caffeine from coffee could be expensive and time-consuming, but also environmentally unfriendly, because it involves the use of harmful and flammable liquids. Some of the Inorganic Group’s research focus areas include the use of carbon dioxide for the extraction of compounds, such as caffeine from plants. 

“Therefore, the research could lead to the availability of more decaffeinated coffee products. Although decaffeinated coffee is currently aromatic, we want to investigate further to ensure better quality flavours,” says Prof Roodt.

Another research aspect the team is focusing on is the use of carbon dioxide to extract chlorophyll from plants which have medicinal properties themselves. Chemical suppliers sell chlorophyll at R3 000 a gram. “In the process of investigating chlorophyll, our group discovered simpler techniques to comfortably extract larger quantities from green vegetables and other plants,” says Prof Roodt.

Medicines
In addition, the Inorganic Research Group is also looking to use carbon dioxide as a building block for more valuable compounds. Some of these compounds will be used in the Inorganic Group’s research focus on radiopharmaceutical products for the identification and possibly even the treatment of diseases such as certain cancers, tuberculosis, and malaria.

 

 

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