Treasury must stick to its guns in the 2017 Budget speech

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan

By Christie Viljoen, Senior Economist at KPMG in South Africa.

KPMG’s theme for Budget 2017 is “managing disruptions”. It is an apt theme for current global economic and political conditions: in a period characterised by financial market volatility, political flux, and exponential leaps in innovation and technology, businesses need to be agile, flexible and founded on clear strategy to survive (and even capitalise on) disruption.

And in the business of running the country’s economy, National Treasury must pursue a similarly clear and consistent trajectory. This is where the steadfast approach of National Treasury in recent years has proved so reliable. “More of the same” would be a welcome premise in the upcoming 2017 Budget speech.

“Boring” promises stability

A seemingly “boring” budget speech is a very welcome thing. Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, is a confident public speaker, and over the years he has worked to inject some life and even stirring rhetoric into his addresses to parliament. He always makes time in the budget speech to share the progress made in various spheres of government spending and service delivery, and to give hope to citizens that government funds will be well spent in the next financial year.

In Minister Gordhan’s address, and specifically in the official 2017/18 Budget Review document, economists and other analysts will be looking for stability, consistency and incremental change towards a healthier fiscus. A predictable approach to the budget, building on the strong economic principles Minister Gordhan and the Treasury are known for, is what will steady jittery observers, including ratings agencies and foreign investors.

Seeking growth

The biggest challenge facing Minister Gordhan is, arguably, economic growth, or the lack thereof. In 2016, South Africa is estimated to have seen 0.4% growth in real gross domestic product (GDP). Robust economic growth is critically important to addressing the numerous problems our country has, including profound income inequality, poverty and unemployment.

Minister Gordhan is expected to forecast economic growth of around 1.3% this year — but this is likely to be an optimistic view. KPMG’s projection for economic growth in 2017 is closer to 1%. Although this is an improvement on the preceding year, it remains way below the above 5% rate that the National Development Plan (NDP) requires.

In a low growth environment, there is weakness in the labour market. For those who are employed, a weak economy means wage increases closer to or below inflation as companies struggle to make ends meet. For corporates, revenue and profits are under pressure. Profits, in turn, determine the kind of interest that investors have in companies, so this has a knock-on effect on investment, both coming into the country and within the country.

Additionally, a weak economic environment puts pressure on tax revenues – the primary funding source for infrastructure development and service provision. If South Africa could grow its economy faster, we would see a corresponding growth in tax revenues. This would give both National Treasury and taxpayers – corporate and individual – some breathing room from the higher tax rates required to match government revenue to government spending.

So where do we look for growth? The primary answer is that South Africa needs to create more jobs. Employment growth is good for the economy in general, good for tax revenue collection, and promotes household spending, which feeds money back into the economic system. But that presents us with a conundrum: needing jobs for growth, and growth for jobs. Where National Treasury can exert some influence, though, is on the regulatory environment that supports or hinders job growth – reducing the bureaucratic red tape, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, and incentivising the transformation of our economy.

Policy certainty drives growth

Another area in which Treasury has some influence is policy, and specifically reducing perceived economic policy uncertainty. Although the government’s official stance is that there is no policy uncertainty in the country, almost all other stakeholders report a strong perception of policy uncertainty – across industries including agriculture, mining, and tourism. The ugly truth is that policy uncertainty suppresses investment. That is part of the economic growth problem. If we solve the policy uncertainty problem, then people can invest confidently, with more confidence about potential returns they can expect in the medium and long term, and that itself will help create jobs.

Moreover, investors want to see government “putting their money where their mouth is”, so to speak. What does this mean? It is not enough to say we want and support more manufacturing growth, for example. There must be tangible efforts made to back these policies. Automotive manufacturing is a good example of where government stepped in with significant support, good planning and real effort. This industry is a shining example of what South Africa could achieve through policy certainty and collaboration between government and business.

Keep on keeping on

National Treasury is under pressure – financially and ideologically – to carry the country through turbulent times, and find that elusive balance between the demands of a developmental state and the accepted principles of a capitalist economy. Minister Gordhan is not expected to offer us any big surprises or U-turns in his 2017 speech – and that should be seen a measure of a good budget speech, rather than a failing.

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