Another look at South African economic & fiscal reality

By AAF Guest Contributor James Greener, Ph.D.

Minister Gigaba told us very little that we did not already know about the poor shape of the government’s finances. However, his unusual approach was actually to say as much and while he has been praised mightily for this, the market reaction has been severe. The prices of South African bonds and currency have plummeted. Those among us who over the past few years have been able to send a few sacks of cash to Dubai for safekeeping with our mates are probably feeling very relieved and smug. The frustrating but telling thing, however, is that all the hand-wringing has been directed at the failure of the income side of the budget to live up to expectation. Not very much at all has been said about the expenditure side of the equation. Given that there really are few untapped sources of significant tax revenue left it is obvious that the axe must be taken to the spending.

Some astonishing charts have been published highlighting just how much higher almost all public-sector salaries are, compared to private sector pay. Multiply this by the massive increase in the number of state employees and to the casual observer, not needing to influence voters, it seems obvious what needs to be done. Understandably any threat to their jobs will at the very least prompt massive strike action. And this should be met by the second leg of the program which is to make starting a business and hiring (and firing) staff so much simpler and easier. That is, create a way to soak up the talent and experience that will come onto (and is already unemployed in) the job market. But that’s two impossible things to believe on the day before the Currie Cup final.

The unwelcome consequences of deficits are debt and the cost thereof (aka interest rates). This is where the irritatingly influential ratings agencies pop up to scrounge a living, and so they are back in the news again. These analysts are no better than any others (see next story) yet because of where they work they assume unearned mantles of authority and infallibility. And because the minister offered some home truths they have (way too late) gone all angel of doom on us and are expected to downgrade South Africa yet again. The nation’s debt service cost is approaching panic station levels. It needs more than Gigaba to start talking specifics about what our government is going to do. To stop looting the public purse and dismiss all felons and thieves would be a good start and a way of sending a great message.

News of an interesting competition came to light recently. Four teams of trainee investment analysts drawn from different business schools were each asked to take a close look at a listed company and decide whether to recommend a buy or a sell. Each team approached the task in a different way using both published data and hands-on investigations of the firm’s products and markets. This resulted in the perfect balance of two buy and two sell recommendations. Anyone who thinks that this lack of consensus is a sign that the students clearly have a lot more to learn from their courses, should realise that this is the norm even after graduation. Anything published by a company (which, by the way, they do only because they have to) is very carefully massaged and managed. Obviously while shareholders and creditors need to be kept happy and informed there is a competing desire to keep competitors and the taxman in the dark. Consequently, it is quite understandable that two different teams can draw conflicting conclusions. It’s the old glass half empty versus glass half full story. Oh, the company they analysed? Distribution and Warehouse Network (Dawn).

Events are such that I’ll be wearing my Sharks shirt in Franschhoek in the Western Cape at the time of the Currie Cup final that will be played the Shark Tank here in Durban tomorrow. I have asked my hosts if we will be able to watch at a Sports Pub but they are dubious if I’ll be welcome. But I have every faith in the hospitality of all South Africans even when we hoist the Cup. (Apologies to the WP supporter who was offended last week at the suggestion that the Lions might win their semi) [Editors’ note: The article was originally published on October 27th, 2017]

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