A guest post from my friend and colleague Sandra Gordon. Sandra is a respected financial market economist and we increasingly present work as a team in what is often called “a dog and pony show” … although in our case there is some disagreement over who will be the dog and who will be the pony. Sandra is an excellent market commentator and I have known and respected her views since she was my client on the “buy side” at Nedcor Investment Bank Asset Management (Nibam) in the mid-90s.

My friend, colleague and author of this post on the National Budget, Sandra Gordon

Over to Sandra:

If there was one message from this year’s budget it is that, despite all the hype that economic transformation has finally arrived (the dreaded “shift to the left” which tends to give the financial market types sleepless nights), it’s actually probably more of a case of business as usual.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, there was serious debate worldwide about the merits of various economic growth models. In the 2010/11 Budget, Minister Gordhan noted: “The recent crisis and its aftermath have led to a serious introspection and rethinking of what were thought to be robust and superior economic models.” With the Washington Consensus in disgrace, South Africa was able to signal its intention of shifting towards a “developmental state” (essentially a more active role for government in the economy).

So it seemed South Africa was headed for a developmental state and real economic transformation. The new model was finally outlined by the New Growth Path (NGP), which was released by Minister Patel late last year. The primary aim of the NGP was the creation of five million new jobs by 2020.

This theme was echoed in the recent State of the Nation address, in which President Zuma announced a range of measures to encourage job creation.

Yet, despite all the talk of economic transformation – and the ongoing tsunami of change in the global environment – this year’s budget is essentially unchanged from the previous. The critical issues facing our economy were again identified as the twin evils of unemployment and poverty, while the best way to address them is to focus on job creation and encouraging growth in those sectors most likely to generate employment.

Admittedly this year’s budget had a greater focus on jobs than last year – with a grocery list of programmes and measures totalling R150 billion over the next three years. A key difference was also the absence of any mention of the “developmental state” – with government’s role limited to the provision of incentives and the creation of an environment conducive to growth – such as the easing of transport and logistic bottlenecks etc. Other than that, the key measures were familiar – more social spending to support the poor, huge sums for investment in infrastructure and a focus on skills development and training.

Essentially the budget delivered on the priorities laid out by the NGP – with one glaring exception: demands for a weaker rand. Minister Gordhan neatly sidestepped this particularly contentious issue by noting that government had already responded to excessive rand strength by easing exchange controls and accelerating the accumulation of foreign exchange reserves in October last year. Beyond those measures, Treasury will be “monitoring” the measures adopted by other countries – including Brazil and Thailand – which have had similar struggles with massive capital inflows and excessive currency strength. So effectively, “we’re looking into it.”

The other political hot potato that was neatly avoided in the budget was the issue of the National Health Insurance. This year’s budget included measures which “lay the foundations” for NHI. The implementation progress is going to take time – but things are undoubtedly going to get more interesting when the debate shifts to how the NHI is to be funded. Gordhan listed a range of possible funding sources including a VAT hike, a surcharge on personal income or a payroll tax. None of those options are likely to be particularly well received.

Essentially then, Gordhan was able to address all the priorities outlined in the NGP (barring rand weakness), while maintaining an element of fiscal discipline. With the deficit remaining at 5.3% of GDP in the new fiscal year – in line with the previous fiscal year but above expectations – debt servicing is now the fastest growing spending category.

While we are in a far better position than countries like America, the UK and various European economies which are slashing government spending and raising taxes, it could well be that this is our last chance to really get the economy moving. If the measures in this year’s budget deliver growth, tax revenues will ultimately rise and fiscal discipline will be maintained.

If, however, growth stagnates – perhaps due to a deterioration in the external environment – the state may find its finances stressed, providing less scope for social spending and job creation initiatives. As one analyst put it in the press this morning, this could be “the last throw of the dice”.

And it is on this front that the news is a little less reassuring.

It is positive that – amidst the global turmoil – the centre is holding and our basic economic policies remain on course. But our key weakness has always been not our policies but our inability to implement those measures. So for all the good news in this year’s budget regarding measures to encourage job creation and infrastructure investment, there have been no developments which would lead one to think that there is going to be any significant improvement in implementation and delivery.

In an increasingly unstable global environment, it is becoming ever more important that we finally start making significant progress on reducing our unemployment rate and pervasive poverty. We have the money, for now, but the ability to implement and deliver is becoming ever more critical.

With so much at stake, it looks set to be another interesting year.

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