by | Dec 1, 2020

On Friday the 20th of November, South Africans received another blow from global ratings agencies when we were further downgraded by Moody’s and Fitch Ratings. This comes at a time when the country is struggling to keep its head above water following the past 10 years of fiscal carelessness, Covid-19 relief measures and the lost Billions to State Capture. Below is an article which articulates what all of this means to us average citizens… the news is not great.


South Africa sunk deeper into junk territory on Friday (20 November) after Moody’s Investors Service joined Fitch Ratings in lowering the country’s credit ratings.

  • Moody’s cut the nation’s foreign and local-currency ratings to Ba2, two levels below investment grade, from Ba1, Bloomberg reported. The outlook remains negative.
  • Fitch cut the nation’s foreign and local-currency ratings to BB-, three levels below investment grade, from BB, also with a negative outlook.
  • S&P on Friday kept its assessment of South Africa’s foreign-currency debt three levels below investment grade, with a stable outlook.

Government has noted the credit rating decisions made by the rating agencies. “The decision by Fitch and Moody’s to downgrade the country further is a painful one. The downgrade will not only have immediate implications for our borrowing costs, it will also constrain our fiscal framework,” said minister of finance, Tito Mboweni in a statement on Saturday (21 November). “There is, therefore, an urgent need for government and its social partners to work together to ensure that we keep the sanctity of the fiscal framework and implement much-needed structural economic reforms to avoid further harm to our sovereign rating.”

S&P affirmed South Africa’s long term foreign and local currency debt ratings at ‘BB-’ and ‘BB’, respectively. The agency maintained a stable outlook. According to S&P, lockdowns associated with combating the Covid-19 pandemic plunged South Africa into its sharpest quarterly economic contraction in the second quarter of 2020, leading to a large widening of the fiscal deficit and rapidly rising government debt.

Nevertheless, there are indications that the economy is beginning to rebound in the third quarter.

Fitch downgraded South Africa’s long term foreign and local currency debt ratings to ‘BB-’ from ‘BB’. The agency maintained a negative outlook. According to Fitch, both the downgrade and negative outlook reflect high and rising government debt exacerbated by the economic shock triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, the country’s very low trend growth and exceptionally high inequality will continue to complicate fiscal consolidation efforts, it said.

Moody’s downgraded South Africa’s long term foreign and local currency debt ratings to ‘Ba2’ from ‘Ba1’. The agency maintained a negative outlook. According to Moody’s, the downgrade reflects the impact of the pandemic shock, both directly on the debt burden and indirectly by intensifying the country’s economic challenges and the social obstacles to reforms. Furthermore, South Africa’s capacity to mitigate the shock over the medium term is lower than that of many sovereigns given significant fiscal, economic and social constraints and rising borrowing costs.

Government’s policy priorities remain economic recovery and fiscal consolidation, as outlined in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery plan and the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement released in October, Treasury said.

“The social compact agreed to between government, business, labour and civil society prioritises short-term measures to support the economy, alongside crucial structural economic reforms.”

Treasury looking for positives

Treasury further noted that rating agencies have indicated that South Africa’s rating strengths include a credible central bank, a flexible exchange rate, an actively traded currency, and deep capital markets, which should help counterbalance low economic growth and fiscal pressures.

“Government implores on all members of society to adhere to all the necessary health and safety protocols to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 infections which would have significant adverse implications for the economy and plans to boost employment.”

Sub-investment grade implications – what it means for the average South African

Treasury said that the Covid-19 pandemic shock hit South Africa at a difficult time. Recent downgrades saw South Africa reaching its lowest credit rating levels from the ‘big three’ rating agencies since 1994.  “Economic growth has continued to decline irrespective of the attempts to reduce structural constraints. Financial strain to the government caused by the pandemic, weak economic growth, high wage bill as well as continuous support to the financially weak state-owned companies have weakened public finances and led to government accumulating debt.”

The government has accumulated debt stock of nearly R4 trillion and spends approximately R226 billion on interest costs.

“If the cost of borrowing money for government increases, it means that government will have to either cut back on social spending or tax more the few people that are employed, which is bad for the country,” the state financial institution said.

Further downgrades will extend the impact of lockdown restrictions, it warned. “These restrictions led to many workers being laid off from work since companies were temporarily closing doors and cutting back on operational costs. Without any disposable income and increasing costs of goods, it will be difficult to maintain the standard of living.”

Continuous rating downgrades, Treasury said, will translate to unaffordable debt costs, deteriorating asset values (such as retirement, other savings and property) and reduction in disposable income for many.

“Rating downgrades associated with Covid-19 have also resulted in many small businesses closing down and laying off a number of workers. Operational costs together with borrowing costs are expected to increase, supporting the motive to pass through the costs to consumers or further laying off workers,” it said.

The recent rating outcomes mean that South Africa needs to fast track growth-enhancing strategies to rectify the accumulation of debt and minimize the costs associated with negative sentiments.

“Operation Vulindlela is a key initiative in this regard and demonstrates government’s commitment to fast-tracking the implementation of critical reforms that raise economic growth and improve fiscal sustainability,” Treasury said.

Mboweni’s medium-term budget last month showed plans to pare the government salary bill, which has surged 51% since 2008, as part of an effort to start bringing the government debt trajectory down after 2026, Bloomberg reported. The proposed wage freeze risks a backlash from politically influential labour groups that are already in a legal battle with the government to honour an agreed pay deal. If state salaries can’t be cut, there’s limited room for offsetting measures in other expenditure areas, Bloomberg said.

Sanisha Packirisamy, an economist at Momentum Investments, said that the downgrade will also have the following implications:

  • Higher borrowing costs for government will crowd out spending on much-needed social and economic programmes;
  • A further knock to business sentiment could lead to lower rates of fixed investment, weaker growth and increased downward pressure on employment;
  • A further negative bias on ratings could lead to a more depreciated currency, higher cost of imported goods, raised inflation and limited extent to which the South African Reserve Bank can keep monetary policy accommodative;

On Moody’s scale, South Africa’s sovereign rating is now in line with Brazil, but above Turkey (B2), on Fitch’s scale, South Africa ranks in line with Turkey and Brazil;

At 234 points, South Africa’s five-year corporate default swap spread (CDS) is 263 points below the April 2020 Covid-19-related peak, it is trading 60 points higher than Brazil’s CDS and 143 points below Turkey’s CDS.

By definition, the rating downgrades further into junk status imply that holders of South Africa’s sovereign debt should include a higher risk premium in the valuation of the asset class to reflect a higher future risk of default, said Packirisamy.

“However, international precedent has shown that ratings downgrades within the non-investment grade bracket is less consequential for sovereign yield levels than a downgrade from investment grade status to junk.”

This is because the latter move could have mandate implications for bondholders and hence trigger forced selling, as such, the country’s exclusion from global bond indices after it was downgraded into junk status by Moody’s in March this year was of more importance to yields, Packirisamy said.