The seven year ditch: climbing out of junk

While it is well documented that junk status has a number of dire consequences for both South Africa, and its people, more important is to consider how long the country can expect to be stuck with a junk rating say Lullu Krugel and Christie Viljoen, economists at KPMG.

On Monday, ratings agency S&P Global lowered South Africa’s sovereign debt to below investment grade, with Fitch and Moody’s likely to follow.

Hours after S&P announced that it would be downgrading South Africa to junk status, Moody’s confirmed that it would also be placing the country on review for downgrade, though the group has now delayed its report for at least 30 days as it assesses the country.

Economists have warned that the downgrade to junk is likely to trigger a recession as its effects spread to the wider economy.

“The downgrade greatly complicates the prospects for South Africa being able to stage an economic recovery. Without a growth recovery, employment growth and revenue collection will stagnate and may even decline,” said CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Frans Cronje.

Research by KPMG into the sovereign ratings assigned by the three largest rating agencies – S&P, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service – over the past three decades indicates that 15 countries have seen their investment-grade ratings revoked but were then able – over time – to regain this status.

These countries include Colombia, Croatia, Hungary, Iceland, India (twice), Indonesia, Ireland, Korea Republic, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay.

Of these countries, Krugel and Viljoen noted that the rating downgrades were broadly grouped into four categories:

Economic deterioration (Colombia, Hungary, India, Latvia and Romania);
Unsustainable macroeconomic imbalances (India, Slovakia and Slovenia);
A domestic currency, financial or banking crisis (Croatia, Iceland, Ireland, Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay); and
A currency, financial or banking crisis resulting directly from neighbouring or regional influences (Indonesia and the Korea Republic).
“These countries’ diverse experiences show that it takes, on average, seven years to again graduate to the investment-grade club.”

The economists said that countries like Croatia, Iceland, Ireland, Korea Republic, Latvia and Slovenia were able to do so in three years or less. At the opposite end of the spectrum, and depending on which rating agency was involved, there were instances where it took Colombia, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Uruguay more than a decade.

Strategies used to return to investment-grade

In addition to an analysis of why countries had historically been downgraded to junk, Krugel and Viljoen also released a report detailing how these countries typically managed to return to an investment-grade rating.

“Strategies and narratives on countries that recovered their investment-grade ratings are broadly grouped into six categories,” noted the duo.

These include:

Fiscal consolidation and/or austerity (Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Romania and Slovenia);
Significant economic and political reforms (Colombia, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Uruguay);
Declining external and fiscal vulnerabilities (India and Thailand);
Debt restructuring and economic policy reform (Korea Republic);
Privatisation of the sovereign’s holdings in private/semi-state companies (Croatia); and
Active intervention by a newly elected government (Iceland and Slovakia).

South Africa
South Africa is most closely associated with the countries experiencing economic deterioration and, possibly, those having unsustainable macroeconomic imbalances, said Krugel and Viljoen.

“On the issue of how South Africa will be able to return to its former investment-grade rating, the key element in a recovery process is that admission that a problem exists and that work is needed to rectify this,” Krugel and Viljoen said.

However the economists noted that following the downgrade announcement by S&P, the National Treasury appeared far from concerned with the development

“The commitment to fiscal consolidation was reiterated, coupled with a rebuttal that South Africa is committed to a predictable and consistent policy framework and that open debate on policy matters should not be a cause for concern.”

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