South Africa’s New Finance Minister Walks Budget Tightrope to Fix Economy

By Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Mfuneko Toyana

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s new finance minister will target spending on agriculture, infrastructure and job creation projects in his inaugural budget speech on Wednesday in a bid to haul the economy out of a recession.

South Africa’s Tito Mboweni in a file photo. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo

With the government facing a ballooning debt, stubbornly high unemployment, struggling state companies, and dwindling coffers, Tito Mboweni, a former central banker only two weeks in the top finance job, will have to walk a tightrope to breath new life into Africa’s most industrialised economy.

Mboweni’s budget speech comes as President Cyril Ramaphosa tries to woo investors after years of weak economic growth and analysts are also watching to see if the budget will include concessions to attract investors.

Agriculture will be a key focus for the government, BNP Paribas South Africa senior economist Jeff Schultz said.

“Agriculture economy in South Africa has shrunk quite significantly over the last decade or so and there is a big push to try and improve that side of the economy because it is employment enhancing,” Schultz said.

Appointed on Oct. 9 as the fourth finance minister in the last two years, Mboweni is seen as providing stability in an office that has seen a high turnover of ministers, causing upheavals in the rand and bond markets.

Mboweni’s Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) is expected to mirror previous budget balance forecasts for the coming two fiscal years, a Reuters poll showed.

Ramaphosa last month announced a stimulus plan that included 50 billion rand ($3.5 billion) of expenditure, a portion of which will be funds shifted from low performance departments, and new funding. The president also flagged a 400 billion rand infrastructure fund to be launched soon.

Analysts and rating agencies are keen to see where Mboweni will find the stimulus money from the 1.67 trillion rand allocated in the 2018 budget. He is also expected to provide revised fiscal deficits and growth forecasts.

“The expenditure ceiling will survive while there will be virtually no room to credibly pencil in any additional taxes,” Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex, said in a note.

He said contingency reserves and unspent allocations, such as some provisions for drought would make up the stimulus cash.


Mboweni is also expected to present a credible plan to stabilise debt, in a bid to avoid further credit downgrades.

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

Ratings agencies warned of the elevated government debt after last year’s medium-term budget rattled markets with a steep acceleration of debt-to-GDP projections.

The February 2018 budget projected gross debt peaking at 56.2 percent of GDP in the medium term.

“The rating agencies will look for fiscal slippage and should the MTBPS deliver materially higher public sector debt projections, the credit rating agencies would see this as credit negative,” Annabel Bishop, chief economist at Investec, said.

Mboweni is expected to show how he will execute Ramaphosa’s plan to revive cash-strapped state firms such as Eskom and South African Airways.

The firms are cited by ratings agencies as a drain on the Treasury’s purse.

Moody’s is expected to be first to assess Mboweni’s budget when it published its ratings review after the speech.

“Credible turnaround plans are needed in exchange for additional guarantees (to state-owned firms) to not be viewed as ratings negatives,” Momentum Investments’ Herman van Papendorp and Sanisha Packirisamy said in a note.

(Writing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by James Macharia, Richard Balmforth)