October 24, 2018 / 12:45 PM / a month ago

Recession-bound South Africa sees wider budget deficits, low growth; rand dips

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa predicted wider budget deficits and cut growth forecasts in a bleak budget on Wednesday that focused spending on infrastructure, manufacturing and agriculture to boost the recession-bound economy.

South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivers his medium-term budget policy statement at Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni acknowledged the challenge he faces at a time revenue shortfalls as he presented his medium term budget policy statement after just two weeks in the job.

“We are trying to make the best out of a difficult situation,” he told reporters before making his maiden budget speech in parliament.

Africa’s most industrialized economy is struggling with ballooning debt that risks pushing its sovereign credit ratings deeper into “junk” territory. Cash-strapped state firms and high public wages have also strained government finances, putting in jeopardy plans to reduce a stubbornly high unemployment rate before national elections next year.

The Treasury estimated the budget deficit would widen to 4 percent of South African gross domestic product in the 2018/19 fiscal year from 3.6 percent forecast previously, and then rise to a 4.2 percent in the next two years. It also halved the growth forecast for this calendar year to 0.7 percent.

In the three years to 2020/21, the tax revenue is expected to underperform significantly, it added. South Africa’s fiscal year runs from April to March.

The rand ZAR=D3 which was half a percent stronger before Mboweni's budget speech, turned weaker, falling nearly 2 percent. Government debt prices also fell.

Mboweni said the markets would recover.

“Once the markets look overall at what is contained in the statement, I think they will get a sense of the balance,” he told a media conference after his speech.

“They might also been unhappy about the consolidated deficit number...I suspect they will come down (recover) a bit.”

‘TOUGH MESSAGE’

The government’s gross loan debt is expected to stabilize at 59.6 percent of GDP by 2023/24 from an estimated 55.8 percent in the current year, the Treasury said. These estimates are likely to be viewed as negative for South Africa’s credit ratings before a possible Moody’s review.

Moody’s is the only one of the “big three” agencies to rate South Africa at investment grade. South Africa is rated “junk” by S&P Global Ratings and Fitch.

“Without meaningful structural economic reform to get this economy growing again the Treasury is going to find itself in a very difficult spot come the February budget,” Jeffrey Schultz, economist at BNP Paribas, said. “I think the risk of ratings downgrades next year is still a very real possibility.”

Sanlam Private Wealth director Greg Katzenellenbogen said: “(Mboweni) had a tougher message for people than we thought and the situation is worse than we thought, especially on revenue collection.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a stimulus plan last month that included 50 billion rand ($3.5 billion) of expenditure, a portion of which will be funds shifted from low performance areas, and some new funding.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The Treasury said it would move 32.4 billion rand in expenditure over the next three years, with nearly half the amount directed to agriculture, infrastructure, clothing and textile incentives and job creation programs.

Funding of under-performing areas has been reallocated, provisional allocations adjusted and the contingency reserve drawn down to make up for the stimulus cash, the Treasury said.

($1 = 14.3918 rand)

Additional reporting by Nqobile Dludla and Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg; Editing by James Macharia, Richard Balmforth

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