September 13, 2018 / 7:55 AM / 2 months ago

UPDATE 3-Moody's sees little chance of South Africa downgrade

* Some respite for President Ramaphosa after recession

* Moody’s sees 2018 growth below 1 pct, less than govt

* Says monitoring Oct. budget statement closely (Recasts, adds finance minister quotes on debt, stimulus)

By Alexander Winning

JOHANNESBURG, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Moody’s said on Thursday there was little chance it would strip South Africa of its investment grade credit rating this year - giving some respite to President Cyril Ramaphosa after the economy moved into recession.

But the agency - the last of the top three ratings firms to have Pretoria’s long-term foreign-currency debt at investment grade - said it was critical that South Africa keep its finances tight if it wanted to keep that rating in the longer term.

South Africa entered recession for the first time since 2009, data showed last week, a particular blow for Ramaphosa who has said he is trying to revive the economy after years of stagnation under former president Jacob Zuma.

Moody’s said the recovery in South Africa’s economy would be slow - slower than the Treasury’s estimate of 1.5 percent growth for 2018 after a surprise contraction in the first two quarters.

“Growth is going to be below 1 percent, to what extent it’s difficult to say,” Lucie Villa, Moody’s lead analyst for South Africa, told the agency’s annual Sub-Saharan Africa conference, referring to this calendar year.

But she brushed off talk of a possible downgrade at a review scheduled for next month.

“South Africa has a stable outlook ... there is little chance of a rating action,” she said.

Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene told the same conference that South Africa was committed to prudent fiscal policy aimed at stabilising the ratio of its debt to gross domestic product.

Nene also said the government was working on a package of measures to stimulate economic growth by reprioritising existing resources.

“The focus on trying to improve on the side of growth because that creates space for us to spend,” he said.

RECESSION

Since the recession shock last week, economic data has pointed to a mixed start to the third quarter.

Retail sales for July showed an expansion in activity, but mining data and business confidence figures have been weak.

Africa’s most developed economy needs faster economic growth if it is to reduce high unemployment - currently at 27 percent - a hot-button issue ahead of national elections in 2019.

Villa said two ratings strengths for South Africa were that its government debt had a long maturity and that relatively little of the debt was foreign-currency denominated.

She said Moody’s would pay close attention to next month’s budget statement to assess the government’s commitment to fiscal consolidation.

Plans by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to nationalise the Reserve Bank were not “rating-relevant,” assuming the bank’s mandate would not be affected, Villa added.

The central bank has said any change of ownership would not affect its mandate or independence. ($1 = 14.8287 rand) (Writing by James Macharia Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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