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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

Law students triumph in Africa
2007-08-16

 

Pictured with the trophies they have won are, from the left: Ms Qaqamba Vellem (fourth-year LL.B. student), Prof. Johan Henning (Dean of the UFS Faculty of Law), Prof. Loot Pretorius (Head of the Department of Constitutional Law and Philosophy of Law), Ms Lucy Nthotso (fourth-year LL.B. student), Ms Thapi Matsaneng (moot coach and lecturer in Corporate Law at the UFS) and Mr Johnny Modipa (third-year LL.B. student).
Photo: Stephen Collett

Law students triumph in Africa

A team of students from the Faculty of Law at the University of the Free State (UFS) has won the first prize at the 16th African Human Rights Moot Court Competition held in Senegal last week.

The UFS team consisted of three L.L .B. students, namely Ms Lucy Nthotso, Ms Qaqamba Vellem and Mr Johnny Modipa, and beat teams from numerous South African law faculties as well as from the rest of Africa.

The Moot Court Competition is an event where students from law faculties across Africa argue a hypothetical case on human rights issues pertinent to the continent. This year’s competition dealt with the issues of refugee status, nationality, HIV/AIDS and the right to education.

Over and above the UFS team’s success as the overall competition winners, the UFS team came first in the written memorials category (written substance of the argument of the particular party), beating seventy teams from both the English and French speaking African countries.

To further add to their splendid overall team performance, team members Ms Vellem and Ms Nthotso were selected amongst the top fifteen students for their oral arguments out of the hundred and forty who took part in the competition. Ms Vellem came tenth and Ms Ntshotso eleventh.

According to the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the UFS, Prof. Johan Henning, the faculty is extremely proud of this achievement of its students in such a highly regarded competition.

“This success shows that the quality of legal education and training we provide here at the UFS, both through the 4- and 5-year L.L.B. options is rated among the best in Africa, if not the world,” Prof. Henning said.

He said it also showed that the faculty is committed to producing black law graduates of substance who are second to none.

The three students were coached by Ms Thapi Matsaneng, a UFS law graduate who is completing her Ph.D. at the University of London and who was groomed by the UFS as part of its Grow Our Own Timber programme, aimed at producing black academics.

Prof. Loot Pretorius, head of the department of constitutional law and philosophy of law at the UFS, acted as a consultant to the team. Ms Matsaneng also accompanied the three team members to Senegal.

The panel of judges who determined the winners comprised of the commissioners of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a South African Constitutional Court judge as well as other respected members of the legal community.

Media Release
Issued by: Mangaliso Radebe
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2828
Cell: 078 460 3320
E-mail: radebemt.stg@ufs.ac.za
16 August 2007

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