South Africa deficits expected to widen on Eskom woes

Tito Mboweni

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s finance minister is likely to raise the medium-term targets for budget deficits, a Reuters poll forecast on Tuesday, because of costs related to the state-owned power utility, Eskom.

A poll of 14 economists surveyed in the past week predicted Finance Minister Tito Mboweni would expand the budget deficit to 6.05% of gross domestic product, compared with a 4.5% projection in February for the year that began in April.

The poll put next fiscal year’s deficit at 5.6% of GDP, compared with a 4.3% forecast in February.

“The budget deficit forecasts are likely to widen somewhat in the near term until revenue improves on [tax] collection efficiencies,” said Annabel Bishop, chief economist at Investec.

Jeffrey Schultz, economist at BNP Paribas, said additional state support to Eskom would cut GDP by 1.2% over the next two years.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that the government will soon announce a permanent chief executive for state-run Eskom, after the struggling power utility reintroduced rolling blackouts last week.

“Eskom’s long-term turnaround strategy released later this month should also indicate that an Eskom debt restructure is on the cards, with a good chance that a healthy portion of the state’s nearly 7% of GDP in Eskom guaranteed debt will move onto the sovereign balance sheet,” Schultz said.

The crisis-hit utility, which produces more than 90% of South Africa’s electricity, has been hobbled by technical and financial woes. It imposed days of power cuts last week after a number of its generating units broke down.

The company’s debt stood at more than 440 billion rand ($29.94 billion) in 2018/19, when the company reported a mammoth 20.7 billion-rand annual loss.

As poor as the country’s finances are, the poll predicted unanimously that South Africa would avoid a credit rating downgrade when Moody’s reviews its status this month.

However, Elize Kruger, an economist at NKC African Economics and Rand Merchant Bank economist Mpho Tsebe expect Moody’s to lower its outlook to negative from stable on Nov. 1. Some economists reckon a downgrade will follow in 12 months or more.

Last month, Moody’s said fiscal risks and political constraints to economic reform in South Africa were reflected in its current credit rating, one notch above speculative grade. But maintaining that rating depended on how fast the government implemented promised reforms, it said.

A majority of economists said a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 70% would be considered a red flag for South Africa, but it would take more than five years to get there.

The ratio currently sits around 57%. A separate survey last week predicted economic growth would remain under pressure at 0.6% this year and 1.2% next year.