Kganyago: SA banks can hold out against a downgrade

South Africa’s banking system is robust enough to withstand a credit ratings downgrade, South African Reserve Bank (SARB) governor Lesetja Kganyago stressed on Thursday, as the country awaits a pending ratings review from agency Moody’s.

Kganyago was speaking at a press briefing following the latest meeting of the central bank’s monetary policy committee, which decided to keep the bank’s repo rate unchanged at 6.75%.

Much of the impact from a possible downgrade of South Africa’s sovereign debt to sub-investment grade would depend on the extent to which markets have priced this event in, said Kganyago.

“To the extent that the market has priced in a possible downgrade, then if a downgrade takes place, it shouldn’t have an impact on the financial markets,” he said.

But deputy governor Daniel Mnimela acknowledged that “it cannot all be priced in at this stage” as some global investors are constrained from so called “front running” and can only adjust their positions once a ratings decision has been taken.

Late on Friday Moody’s is expected to make a call on South Africa’s sovereign credit rating, which it holds one rung above sub-investment grade, or junk, status but with a stable outlook.

It is the last of the three main ratings agencies, which include Standard & Poor’s and Fitch to rate South Africa’s debt at investment grade. Should it downgrade the country, South Africa will fall out of important global government bond indices, which are tracked by major global investment funds. This could trigger estimated capital outflows of between $8-billion and $10-billion.

Kganyago was nevertheless confident that local banks will be able to withstand the negative effects of such an event.

In 2016, the SARB conducted a series of stress tests of the local banking system, to assess whether it could withstand a possible downgrade, he said. Under the most adverse scenario it is expected that such a downgrade could lead to a protracted decline in economic growth, the depreciation of the currency, a rise in inflation and rising borrowing costs for the government and the country at large.

“Even under that adverse scenario the South African banking systems came out with flying colours,” he said.

“So we are not worried about the impact on the banking sector as a result of a downgrade.”

Despite a damaging bout of load-shedding by embattled parastatal Eskom last week, and a February budget that outlined the severity of the government’s financial constraints, Moody’s may not pull the trigger just yet, argue some economists.

“We are expecting a downgrade in the outlook from stable to negative, but the rating, in our view, is likely to remain unchanged,” said chief economist at Momentum Investments, Sanisha Packirisamy in a statement.

Moody’s has noted the breach of government’s spending ceiling announced in the budget and the additional money allocated to rescuing Eskom, she said. But it has also acknowledged that, outside of this, state spending, including on the wage bill, had slowed.

“We expect Moody’s to take a wait and see approach to Eskom to review its turnaround strategy and the proposed unbundling model, once more information comes to light,” she said.

Should conditions deteriorate however – for example through extended load shedding or a worsening fiscal and debt trajectory– a downgrade to junk status could take place “down the line” Packirisamy said, and result in money flowing out of local bonds and equities.

There is also the possibility that Moody’s may elect to postpone Friday’s review in order to make a more informed ratings decision, she noted.

“In that case, we view it likely that it would take place later this year after the elections and once it has more information on updated fiscal dynamics, Eskom’s turnaround plan and progress on SA’s structural reform agenda,” she said.

Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.
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