Markets & economy

A downgrade imposes a cost on all South Africans

Reports showed this week that South Africa slipped into its second recession in two years in the final quarter of 2019. Will Moody’s now be even more inclined to rescind the country’s remaining investment grade credit rating in March? Sandy McGregor discusses how local investors may be impacted if this happens.

When it placed South Africa on a negative outlook following the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) in October last year, Moody’s issued a statement which was understood by the market to imply that future ratings decisions would depend on presenting in the February budget a plausible plan to bring our rapidly deteriorating fiscal deficit under control, and that failure to present such a plan could result in an immediate downgrade.

The Budget of 2020 does indeed propose that the growth in government spending be restricted by ending the past practice of automatically escalating the remuneration of public sector employees above the rate of inflation and automatic pay progression. However, Moody’s seems to be concerned as to whether this programme is politically feasible. Without visible progress in reaching a credible agreement between the public sector and trade unions, South Africa’s investment grade rating is at risk.

Perhaps in response to the prevalent belief that a downgrade is inevitable, Moody’s issued a statement in January saying that given its processes, an immediate downgrade, while possible, is not inevitable and that any decision could be postponed to October 2020. However, the market is already pricing South African debt as sub-investment grade.

The importance of Moody’s decision is that inclusion in the World Government Bond Index (WGBI) requires an investment grade rating by at least one rating agency. With South Africa already rated as sub-investment grade by S&P, a similar action by Moody’s will result in our eviction from WGBI. Investors restricted by mandates to investment grade assets would be forced to sell their South African bonds.

A sudden repositioning of portfolios could cause a big sell off in South African bonds and the rand. However, as the market has already downgraded South Africa the impact of the actual event could be short lived. The economy will adjust to the new reality, with interest rates somewhat higher and the rand somewhat weaker than otherwise would be the case. However, this does not mean that a downgrade can be dismissed as irrelevant. It would be a message that the economy is being mismanaged, which imposes a cost on all South Africans.

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