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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

Power interruptions: Information for internal communication
2008-01-31

As part of the UFS’s commitment to address load shedding, the management would like to communicate the following:

The UFS mainly deals with the power interruptions by way of (a) the possible installation of equipment (e.g. generators) and (b) operational arrangements to ensure the functioning of the UFS in spite of power interruptions.

During the past week progress was made on both fronts. The information that follows resulted from a meeting of a task team of Physical Resources led by Mr Nico Janse van Rensburg, which took place on Monday 28 January (this task team naturally focuses on physical solutions) and a discussion by Exco on Wednesday 30 January 2008. Exco discussed the recommendations of the mentioned task team in respect of physical aspects, as well as the operational arrangements proposed by faculties.

Physical solutions

A Main Campus

1. New emergency power installations already approved:

Last week Exco gave its approval for the design and installation of emergency power equipment in all the large lecture-hall complexes to proceed immediately.

In all these cases

  • load surveys have been completed and a start has been made with the ordering of equipment and the process of appointing contractors. (Exco approved the adjustment of normal tender procedures in an attempt to expedite completion.)
  • generators with 20-30% more capacity than required for the current load are being ordered.
  • provision is being made for the connection of lights and at least one wall plug to the emergency power.
  • the expected construction time is 16 weeks (except in the case of the Flippie Groenewoud Building where it is 6 weeks).

The above-mentioned concerns lecture halls/ venues in the following buildings: Examination Centre, Flippie Groenewoud Building, Stabilis, Genmin and the Agriculture Building.

As far as the Agriculture Building is concerned, a larger generator (larger than required for lecture venues only) is being ordered in view of simultaneously providing essential research equipment (refrigerators, ovens, glasshouses) with emergency power within 16 weeks.

2. Investigation into the optimal utilisation of present emergency power installations

All the emergency power systems are being investigated on the basis of a list compiled in 2006 to determine whether excess capacity is available and whether it is possible to connect additional essential equipment or lights to it.

The electrical engineer warns as follows:
“Staff members must under no circumstances overload present emergency power points.

A typical example of this is a laboratory with 10 power points of which 2 points are emergency power outlets. Normally a fridge and freezer would, for example, be plugged into the two emergency power points, but now, with long load-shedding interruptions, a considerably larger number of appliances are being plugged into the power point by means of multi-sockets and extension cords. In the end the effect of such connections will accumulate at the emergency generator, which will then create a greater danger of it being overloaded and tripping, in other words, no emergency power will then be available.”

3. Requests and needs addressed directly to Physical Resources or reported to Exco via the line managers.

All the physical needs and requests addressed directly to Physical Resources or submitted to Exco via the line managers are being listed, classified and considered technically in view of their being discussed by the task team on Monday 11 February.
The information will (a) lead to recommendations to Exco regarding possible additional urgent emergency power installations, and (b) be used in the comprehensive investigation into the UFS’s preparedness for and management of long power interruptions.

Requests that can easily be complied with immediately and that fit into the general strategy will indeed be dealt with as soon as possible.

4. Purchase of loose-standing equipment: light, small, loose-standing generators, UPSs as solutions to/ aids during power interruptions

Exco approved that

a) faculties and support services accept responsibility themselves for the funding and purchase of loose equipment such as, for example battery lights, should they regard these as essential.
b) UPSs (uninterruptible power supplies) that faculties and support services wish to purchase to combat the detrimental effect of unexpected power interruptions on computer equipment) can (as at present) be purchased from own funds via Computer Services.
c) UPSs (uninterruptible power supplies) that faculties and support services wish to purchase to combat the detrimental effect of unexpected power interruptions on other types of equipment can normally be purchased from own funds with the consent of the line manager concerned.
Note: Please just make sure of the appropriateness of the equipment for a specific situation: it is not a power supply that can bridge a two-hour power interruption.)
d) small, loose-standing generators can be purchased from own funds via Physical Resources and installed under their supervision.
e) laptop computers can , where necessary, be purchased from own budgets. The availability of second-hand laptop computers must be taken into account.

B Vista

No major problems have been reported to date. The situation is being monitored and will be managed according to need. The same guidelines that apply to the Main Campus will naturally also apply to the Vista Campus.

C Qwaqwa

The situation is receiving attentions and solutions have already been found for most problems.

D General

1. All-inclusive project
A comprehensive investigation into the UFS’s preparedness for and management of long power interruptions will be launched as soon as possible. Available capacity will be utilised first to alleviate the immediate need. The needs assessment to which all faculties and support services have already contributed is already an important building block of the larger project.

2. Building and construction projects currently in the planning and implementation phase
The need for emergency power for projects such as the new Computer Laboratory is being investigated proactively and will be addressed in a suitable manner.

3. Liaison with Centlec
Attempts at direct and continuous liaison are continuing in an attempt to accommodate the unique needs of the UFS.

4. HESA meeting and liaison with other universities
A representative of the UFS will attend a meeting of all higher education institutions on 11 February. The meeting is being arranged by HESA (Higher Education South Africa) to discuss the implications for the sector, the management of risks and the sector’s response to government.

5. Internal communication
It is the intention to communicate internally after every meeting of the task team, which will take place on Mondays. Strategic Communication will assist in this regard.


 

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