This article was first published in Business Day.
SA has a growth problem. The latest example was encapsulated in this week’s third-quarter GDP figures: the economy contracted 0.6% from the previous quarter and 0.1% year on year.
The GDP numbers should prove a reality check after the buoyant political responses to second-quarter growth of 3.1%. That was off a low base and represented a return to normal after the disastrous first three months of the year, which were marked by a surprise return of load-shedding.
What should linger in our consciousness is that even at these anaemic GDP growth levels our energy grid is at its limit. Will we have the energy capacity if the economy grows beyond even the 1% mark? A question for another day, perhaps.
The growth problem points to the real possibility of a ratings downgrade, possibly as early as March, by Moody’s Investors Service, the only agency that has us holding on — by a single thread — to investment grade.
The third-quarter GDP numbers are therefore of great concern, especially since by most expectations the final three months of 2019 are not going to be much better. The economy is in essence sleepwalking its way towards judgment day. The current fiscal position is not sustainable and the pace of the reforms that have been introduced have been too sluggish to arrest the gradual slide in our GDP growth forecasts, which are fundamental to the ratings outlook.
That outlook depends fundamentally on two things: the government’s ability to control expenditure, particularly the public sector wage bill, and its ability to raise revenue. Given limited scope for tax increases, a growing economy is the only way to improve public sector revenue.