The South African economy could take as long as seven years to get back to the size of R5.1 trillion it was at the end of 2019 before Covid-19 and the national lockdown.
This forecast is according to Citadel chief economist Maarten Ackerman, who expressed this view during an interview.
Long way back
Christopher Loewald, South African Reserve Bank (SARB) head of economic research, told the Tax Indaba that it was going to take a long time to get back to a real activity level of 100% again.
During the same event, Ismail Momoniat, National Treasury Deputy Director-General for tax and financial sector policy, said that it wouldn’t be an easy road to get the South African economy back to its 2019 level.
“We need a Covid-19 vaccine, and we need to ensure that sufficient people get vaccinated. I think we need to be careful about talking about post-Covid. I think we are years away from that,” he added.
Advice for SMEs
Economists suggest that small businesses gear themselves for tough times, keep costs low, and ensure they are highly innovative.
“Small businesses need to be lean and mean. They need to have a buffer to get them through difficult times,” Ackerman said.
Every business needed to think carefully about how they expanded, he added.
Make your plans in the context of the forecasts we discuss below…
The local economy has contracted
This advice comes amid a local economy that has stagnated since 2015 and contracted for the past year, including a 51% contraction, on an annualised basis, in the second quarter because of the nationwide lockdown that started on March 27.
Sanisha Packirisamy, MMI Investments and Savings economist, said during an interview, that she was expecting the local economy to contract by 8.1% this year, followed by a muted rebound of 2% in 2021 when anticipated Eskom power cuts will constrain the economy.
Ackerman said that an 8% contraction of the local economy would be the biggest decline since 1920 when there was a 12% contraction.
A worrying sign
A worrying sign was that the outlook for fixed investment and household consumption, both key to the long-term economic health, were both bleak, Packirisamy added.
For 2022 and 2023, she is forecasting growth of about 1.5% for both years.
“We are stretched on the fiscal side, and confidence is extremely muted. We face policy uncertainty and slow structural reform. It is that combination of factors that makes it very difficult for us to grow faster,” she added.
Mild inflation outlook
The inflation outlook is positive.
Packirisamy is forecasting inflation to average 3.2% in 2020 and 3.8% in 2021 before rising to 4.5% in both 2022 and 2023.
Economists forecast that interest rates will stay low.
Packirisamy said that the SARB could cut interest rates further, but interest rates were likely to increase from the second half of 2021.
At the end of 2021, Packirisamy expected the prime interest rate to be 7.5%, and by the end of 2023, the prime interest rate maybe 8.5%.
Credit rating to fall even further
In March this year, Moody’s Investors Service cut the South African government’s credit rating to “junk” status or sub-investment grade, which is the grade that its two rivals, Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings had the country on since April 2017.
“We are probably going to see more downgrades, and by 2023 the country’s credit rating will be two or three notches lower,” Ackerman said.
He said that the government was facing a fiscal crisis, and the only way for the South African state to avoid that was to embark on big expenditure cuts, but the state was baulking at doing that.
Public finances are dangerously overstretched
“Public finances are dangerously overstretched. Without urgent action…a debt crisis will follow,” the National Treasury said in July.
The government budget deficit, which is the amount by which revenue fails to fund expenditure, will widen to 15% during the fiscal year ending March 2021, according to Ackerman. Then in the fiscal year ending March 2022, the budget deficit will recover to 10%, he expects.
In five to seven years, Ackerman forecasts that government debt will climb to 100% of GDP, he said. By comparison, the National Treasury estimates that national debt will reach 81.8% of GDP by the end of March 2021.
Unemployment rate to soar
According to Packirisamy, the unemployment rate would climb because South Africa was not growing fast enough to absorb the new people entering the labour force.
Ackerman predicts that the rate of unemployment would rise to 35% by 2023 from 30%.
South Africa needs growth of at least 3% before the unemployment rate declined, he added.
How to get out of the debt trap?
South Africa needs to get out of its debt trap by igniting economic growth. In the meantime, it needs to find international or other funding to plug the gap in the state budget.
There are fears that the state might force managers of pension funds to allocate a portion of their clients’ money to fund the running of the government and state-owned enterprises.
But Treasury’s Momoniat told the Tax Indaba that the state was not looking to put in place any prescribed asset regime.
Could an IMF bailout follow the loan?
In July, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a US$4.3 billion loan to the South African government.
The state intends to borrow US$7 billion from multilateral finance institutions, including the IMF, the National Treasury said in early July.
There is a possibility that the South African government will be forced to go back to the IMF in the future for further debt in the form of a wider-ranging bailout.
“I think an IMF bailout would be very positive for markets, because it installs a bit of a policy anchor, and it forces the government to do things that it may not feel comfortable to do otherwise,” Packirisamy said.
About the value of the rand, Packirisamy said that she expected the rand would maintain its long-term depreciating bias because of South Africa’s high level of inflation when compared with its major trading partners and the deteriorating local economic fundamentals.