UPDATE 2-S.Africa holds rates but cut "was on table"

Thu May 23, 2013 12:15pm EDT

Related Topics

* Bank discusses rate cut "extensively"

* Concerned about steep wage settlements

* Cuts growth forecasts (Adds analyst comment, writes through)

By Xola Potelwa

JOHANNESBURG, May 23 (Reuters) - South Africa's Reserve Bank left its repo rate unchanged on Thursday, while admitting for the first time in nearly a year that it had considered a cut to try to boost weakening growth in Africa's biggest economy.

As well as restive unions and threats of output disruptions in the mines, South Africa's electricity supply is looking very tight with the onset of the southern hemisphere winter and the possibility of rolling blackouts is high.

The bank also reiterated that exports were suffering from weak global demand, gloomy news for President Jacob Zuma as he heads to an election in 12 months' time with unemployment stuck above 25 percent.

The bank left rates at 40-year lows of 5 percent, in line with the consensus of 25 economists polled by Reuters last week. Its last reduction was in July last year.

As well as trimming its 2013 GDP growth forecast to 2.4 percent from 2.7 percent, it also raised concerns about "fractious labour relations" in the mining sector, which is about to embark on the toughest round of wage talks in memory.

"Given the current unsettled environment in the economy, the MPC assesses the risks to inflation to be on the upside, while many of the above factors contribute to a downside risk to growth," Governor Gill Marcus said.

Reflecting these difficulties, Marcus said the MPC had discussed a rate cut "extensively".

"It was on the table," she told a news conference.

However she also warned that it was "premature" for the market to start pricing in a rate cut - a comment that helped the rand gain 0.4 percent to 9.5375 to the dollar.

Analysts said those gains were likely to be short-lived as pressure to stimulate flagging growth ahead of next year's election builds throughout the year.

"For markets, the most important outcome was in the admission that the debate does seem to have shifted," said Razia Khan, head of Africa research for Standard Chartered.

"For South Africa, this remains the only real avenue of stimulus available. The reasons not to cut again are once again becoming less weighty, and will continue to depend very much on the growth outlook."

Forward Rate Agreements (FRA's) had been pricing in the chance of a rate cut before the rand plunged to a 4-year low in the last two weeks amid fears of a repeat of last year's mining violence, in which more than 50 people died.

Marcus said she was concerned about the prospect of excessive wage settlements in the sector after one mining union demanded a salary hike of 60 percent for gold and coal miners.

"The MPC is increasingly concerned about the prospect of settlements well above inflation and productivity growth and the risk of protracted and disruptive strike action, with negative implications for growth and exports," she said.

Despite this, the MPC produced a slightly improved outlook for inflation, with CPI expected to breach its 3-6 percent target band in the latter half of this year at a lower average rate of 6.1 percent, compared to 6.3 percent previously.

This was the first MPC meeting for new committee member Kuben Naidoo, a former senior official in the National Treasury, who also joins Marcus' advisor. (Editing by Ed Cropley; editing by Ron Askew)

FILED UNDER: