HILARY JOFFE: Cyril lights up the room, but where's the plan?

19 May 2019 - 05:11 By HILARY JOFFE

There was serious money in the room when President Cyril Ramaphosa this week addressed a roomful of big-hitting international and local fund managers, who collectively have about $400bn (about R5.7-trillion) invested in SA's bond and equity markets.
The president said all the right things - including, emphatically and repeatedly, that Eskom was too big and too important to the economy and the country to fail, and that the government was not going to allow it to fail. He said there was a credible business plan in place. He said partnerships with the private sector would be welcome. He promised the government would address the "elephant in the room" - Eskom's debt.
The price of Eskom bonds lifted in response to the president's comments, despite a Bloomberg report speculating the debt had now climbed to almost R500bn.
Yet the "too big to fail" pitch was almost more disturbing than reassuring, raising questions again about whether the government is genuinely on track to fix Eskom and slim down the elephant - or is it simply powerless to shift the weight?
Late last year, when the government and Eskom promised a far-reaching restructuring of Eskom to cut its costs and its debt, the market was won over. Ramaphosa's February state of the nation speech, which committed to unbundling Eskom and supporting its balance sheet, went down well. Even better was finance minister Tito Mboweni's commitment to more than R100bn of balance sheet support over 10 years, conditional on the appointment of a chief reorganisation officer "within weeks", and on Eskom transmission being hived off as a separate company with an independent board "by mid-2019".
But mid-2019 is almost upon us and it's gone quiet. There's no sign of a plan. Market confidence has turned to market scepticism. And far from addressing the debt crisis, the government has had to cough up cash to prevent Eskom defaulting.
Moody's has certainly assumed the government cannot allow Eskom to fail - so much so that the agency this week announced, in a report on SA, that it would now add Eskom's guaranteed debt to government debt. It is counting the guarantees as if they had already been called.
The result is a government debt ratio which Moody's now calculates at 63% of gross domestic product - warning it will jump above 70% within four years if the government cannot cut its own fiscal deficit and/or lift economic growth.
It's a scary debt trajectory. It would be more so without those bond fund managers who buy South African and Eskom debt, albeit at a price. That there were so many in the room - giants such as BlackRock, Fidelity and Wellington - reflects continued appetite for SA despite it all. No wonder Ramaphosa made it one of his first post-election priorities to charm them.
• Joffe is a communications consultant and freelance journalist

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