SUNDAY TIMES - SA companies yet to feel the ratings pinch
Sunday Times Business By PERICLES ANETOS, 2017-04-16 00:00:00.0

SA companies yet to feel the ratings pinch

In the past week, listed companies ranging from rand-hedge industrial heavyweights and those in the resources sector performed well, benefiting from rand weakness.

The flurry of ratings downgrades - both country and corporate - South Africa has experienced over the past two weeks has yet to burn the nation's big companies, but that might not be long in coming.

The country's foreign-currency debt was downgraded to junk by S&P Global Ratings and Fitch, which will result in South Africa being removed from a number of indices on international capital markets.

Fitch's decision to also downgrade the nation's local-currency debt to subinvestment grade - which S&P has not yet done - further placed South Africa in a position where it might not be able to access certain capital markets.

But until S&P or Moody's downgrade the country's local-currency debt to junk the risk to companies is not that high. So far, therefore, not many companies have been hit hard.

In the past week, listed companies ranging from rand-hedge industrial heavyweights and those in the resources sector performed well, benefiting from rand weakness.

Even the banking sector recovered towards the end of the week, rising 6%, after heavy losses as a result of the downgrades.

Economist Iraj Abedian said that if South Africa's local currency debt did not remain above junk status companies that were going directly to the capital markets, including state-owned entities, to raise money would be affected, as this would cut off their usual source of funding.

The companies that would be affected most would be those that were solely reliant on the South African market, Abedian said, while those that had expanded into other countries would be affected less.

"If a company needed capital for whatever reason they were worse off after the downgrade," said Abedian.

Another factor that would affect South African companies was that as the costs of capital rose for the government so would corporate taxes.    

As the government's ability to raise capital outside in the bond market is curbed and comes at a higher price, the state would turn to companies to fund the shortfall, in turn stifling the growth of companies, Abedian said.

George Glynos, MD of ETM Analytics, said that since the firing of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015 companies had started to deal with higher bond yields and credit default swaps - which are a form of insurance against default of bond issuers.

This effectively reflected the higher perceived risk that South Africa presented to investors, even before the downgrades to junk were announced, Glynos said.

The market had positioned itself for a downgrade a while ago, since the beginning of 2016.

But even so "the net effect for most of these corporates is when they borrow money they are going to be doing so at higher interest rates than might otherwise have been the case," he said.

Head of group media relations at Sasol Alex Anderson said the group remained committed to its key capital growth projects in Southern Africa and North America, and would continue to deliver on its long-term strategic objectives despite the downgrades.

Moody's has rated Sasol Baa2, which is the same as the sovereign and is two levels above subinvestment grade. Moody's has yet to announce its decision on South Africa's rating.

Anderson said that if Moody's lowered the sovereign rating by one level, and also Sasol's by one notch as a result, Sasol would still be at investment grade. But it was too early to say what the effect would be on the cost of new debt for the group, he said.

S&P announced this week that Telkom had retained its investment-grade rating of BBB- even though the government is a significant shareholder.

Telkom group CEO Sipho Maseko said in a statement that the decision was a nod to the aggressive implementation of a turn-around strategy by the group. But as Maseko indicated in his statement, the downgrade of the sovereign would affect the economy at large, and so could still affect Telkom.

"In the immediate term, the focus should be to avoid a recession. Collaboration between government, business, labour and civil society will be vital to evolve a new growth framework to take the country forward," he said.

Super Group also announced that S&P had reaffirmed the group's rating as above investment grade.