SUNDAY TIMES - Ratings downgrade will not be end of the world, says Gordhan
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Sunday Times Business By MARIAM ISA, 2016-03-06

Ratings downgrade will not be end of the world, says Gordhan

Pravin Gordhan, when he was minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, before he was catapulted back into the Treasury hot seat.
Image: RUSSELL ROBERTS

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has urged the business community not to view a possible loss of South Africa's investment-grade credit rating as a mortal blow to its economic prospects, pointing out that it took several years to achieve that status after the advent of democracy.

Fending off a downgrade from Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings, which have both placed South Africa on the bottom rung of the investment-grade ladder, is the rallying call of Gordhan's campaign to unite business, government and labour in efforts to spur flagging growth and investment.

But he told dozens of top business executives at a Deloitte briefing on Thursday not to despair if it happened, despite the negative consequences for the economy.

"It doesn't matter if it's too little too late - let's give it our best shot. We don't have time to worry about that. Afterwards, if it's too late, at least the people will say we tried," he said. "We weren't always investment grade, we had to earn it. The challenge is, can we talk with one voice, can we project one picture?"

The heated public conflict between Gordhan and South African Revenue Service commissioner Tom Moyane has hampered improvement in flagging investor confidence, while speculation last week that Gordhan would resign over the dispute heavily knocked the rand.

  We have to work on it and leave it up to the president to give us the kind of direction we need to take

The Hawks is investigating a so-called "rogue" unit at the tax agency that was set up when Gordhan was in charge, and he has queried the basis on which he is being questioned.

Gordhan told reporters after his presentation to Deloitte that President Jacob Zuma had shown confidence in the National Treasury during the past week, and a cabinet statement earlier that day indicated that there was a process at work which would "hopefully constructively resolve all of the issues that are in the public space".

"We have to work on it and leave it up to the president to give us the kind of direction we need to take, but at the end of the day what you want is a professional set of relationships and a professionally run institution which focuses on its core business."

Colin Coleman, Goldman Sachs MD for sub-Saharan Africa, said the underlying issue was whether the institutional integrity of South Africa was safe after the dramatic events of December, when Zuma reversed his unexplained decision to replace finance minister Nhlanhla Nene with the lightweight David van Rooyen.

Coleman played a key role in that process, which resulted in the reappointment of Gordhan, who had held the position for years prior to Nene.

If the conflict between Gordhan and Moyane was left unresolved, and the finance minister resigned after being left with "no credible alternative", it would in all likelihood precipitate a ratings downgrade, and a currency and economic crisis, Coleman said. It was "crucial" to find a way to resolve the institutional integrity of all the main pillars of the economy, be it at the Treasury, the Reserve Bank, or SARS, he added.

During his presentation, Gordhan pointed out that ratings agencies no longer just looked at a country's fiscal stability and indebtedness, they wanted to know where growth was coming from, and took the "political economy" into account.

Figures released on Tuesday did not offer support for South Africa's chances of keeping its investment-grade rating - the economy only grew 0.6% in the final quarter of last year, bringing the expansion rate during 2015 to just 1.3%, from 1.5% in 2014 and 2.2% in 2013 and 2012.

Contractions in agricultural production, which has been hit hard by drought, and the manufacturing sector were mainly to blame for the poor outcome, which was below consensus forecasts for an increase of 0.9%.

Stanlib economist Kevin Lings pointed out that a biannual review by S&P - traditionally the ratings agency the most critical of South Africa - showed that the average sovereign credit rating around the world had fallen by one notch since 2008, while South Africa has been downgraded by two notches since 2012 by the agency. "A move to below investment grade would make South Africa one of the worst-performing countries since 2008 with regard to sovereign credit ratings," he said.

Gordhan said he would begin a "roadshow" to the US and UK next week, together with business leaders, to meet investors and ratings agencies and discuss his 2016 budget. Critics have said that although in many ways the budget ticked all the right boxes, there were no new initiatives to boost growth.