February 15, 2018 / 5:43 PM / 3 months ago

Investors put strong cabinet at top of South Africa's to-do list

LONDON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The ousting of Jacob Zuma has fuelled hopes that South Africa can lift itself out of the economic doldrums, but investors flag a number of things that should be top of new President Cyril Ramaphosa’s to-do list.

1/ UNIFY, AND RULE

Following the divisive years under Zuma, investors want to see Ramaphosa unite the leadership and the ruling ANC party more widely, and put swiftly a competent leadership team into place.

He will have to be ruthless and move fast, with the country’s budget due next Wednesday seen as crucial if the country has any chance of clinging on to its one remaining investment grade credit rating.

There also needs to be a sense among the population that the corruption that has been at the heart of many of South Africa’s troubles in recent years is really being addressed.

“Maybe we see the entire cabinet steeping down,” says Michael Bolliger, the top emerging market specialist in the Chief Investment Office at UBS Wealth Management.

Zuma didn’t help by changing finance minister five times during his nine year tenure, with markets turning particularly rowdy in late 2015 when he disposed of the widely respected Pravin Gordhan and replaced him with Malusi Gigaba.

“Everyone will look for Ramaphosa to build a strong cabinet and get rid of the Zuma factions,” added Anders Faergemann, portfolio manager at PineBridge Investments in London. “The next step will be who will replace Gigaba as the new finance minister.”

2/ IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID

One of the things that investors, economists and the rating agencies all agree on is that the economy needs to get going again to help stabilise the country’s finances, create jobs again and ease the process of reform.

The budget next week will be key for that says rating agency said S&P Global’s sovereign analyst Gardner Rusike. “While there are issues with the fiscal consolidation, at the heart of the challenges is this very low pace of economic growth that South Africa is experiencing.”

Ramaphosa’s number crunchers will also have to find a way of increasing the country’s tax base says Salman Ahmed, chief investment strategist at Lombard Odier. “The fiscal deficit has to be reined in and some pain has to be taken.”

3/ STATE-OWNED FIRMS

Cleaning up cash-strapped and scandal-plagued state-owned firms such as power utility Eskom is seen by investors as one of the keys to mending South Africa’s battered public finances.

The potential for more costly bailouts was one of the reasons the preliminary budget in October saw the estimate for the country’s fiscal deficit hit an eight-year high.

Foreign investors say they need to see a decisive action plan from the government to tackle struggling state firms which also include South African Airways and the post office, but especially the country’s sole power provider Eskom.

“A big question mark is whether those (medium-term budget) figures are sustainable or whether they could be revised higher, which is our fear,” said Sergey Dergachev, senior portfolio manager at Union Investment.

S&P’s Rusike said it would also be one of the things he would be watching out for in next week’s budget. “It is more to do with demonstrating that the government is committed and implementing the governance reforms they have outlined, not only at Eskom but all the other weak state-owned enterprises.”

Reporting by Karin Strohecker, Marc Jones and Claire Milhench; Editing by Peter Graff

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