Moody's Investors Service signage is displayed outside of the company's headquarters in New York, US, on Friday September 30, 2011. File photo: BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES/RAMIN TALAIE
Moody's Investors Service signage is displayed outside of the company's headquarters in New York, US, on Friday September 30, 2011. File photo: BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES/RAMIN TALAIE

It is no surprise that Moody’s Investors Service has finally downgraded SA to subinvestment grade, or “junk” as it is sometimes called. This change aligned Moody’s rating to that of Fitch and S&P Global Ratings, with all three agencies on a negative outlook.

Last week Fitch went a step further and downgraded again, making it the most bearish agency at present, two notches below investment grade. Moody’s remains one notch below investment grade, while S&P’s split rating (local- and foreign-currency ratings) are a respective one and two notches below investment grade. The question that arises: is “junk” just “junk”?

The first tier of subinvestment grade (Ba1-Ba3 for Moody’s and BB- or BB+ for S&P-Fitch) is described as “speculative”, whereas the tier below this (B1-B3 for Moody’s and B+ and B- for S&P-Fitch) is described as “highly speculative”. Another 11 to 12 notches down is the area in which countries are in default.

To use an extreme example, Argentina’s sovereign rating is now seven notches below investment grade — territory generally described as “default imminent with little prospect for recovery”. So while “imminent default” still seems a faraway prospect for SA, the country still faces the problem of being junk rated with negative outlooks across all three agencies — the worst place to be during a crisis.

SA faces two scenarios: establishing itself at the very top of subinvestment grade on stable outlooks across all agencies, leaving investment-grade status just one step away; or falling deeper into subinvestment-grade territory to the point of no return.

Let us consider the more upbeat scenario first. To keep things simple, suppose a country falls one notch into junk on negative outlooks across all agencies but quickly decides to take the correct measures to strengthen its GDP growth outlook and thus its fiscal position. In SA’s case this would mean reversing the factors that prompted the downgrades and negative outlooks to begin with, by finding a credible strategy to stabilise debt, create a stronger GDP growth outlook and reduce the burden of inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

If, hypothetically speaking, SA were able to do this, ratings agencies would eventually move to stable outlooks, and at just one notch below investment grade investors would likely start asking what the country needs to do to achieve a ratings upgrade back to investment grade. In the end the country becomes an investment opportunity, a “comeback kid” in emerging markets. The longer this persists, the more inflows the economy receives, and the rest follows.

Potentially encouraging. But it also seems a reach for a country that was unable to gain sufficient traction on reforms through the eight years of persistent warnings from ratings agencies that continued to downgrade. That, unfortunately, placed SA on a weak footing to begin with. But even the first two years of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency haven’t provided sufficient government support for the National Treasury to place the country on a path of debt stabilisation. SA therefore sits two notches below investment grade with at least one of the three ratings agencies now that Fitch has made its decision.

The challenge with an emerging market that moves deeper into junk territory is that the prospect of climbing out becomes more remote. Put another way, the often unpopular political effort required to achieve two or more rating upgrades is something most governments do not have a political appetite for.

As such, the requisite discipline countries would need to adhere to, to maintain higher sovereign ratings, typically falls by the wayside. This can lead to policy instability, which increases the country’s risk premium, adding to the borrowing costs associated with moving deeper into junk.

SA has a clear advantage in that its institutional strength, in the ratings methodology, scores two notches above investment grade. This means strong institutions should push the government harder to accelerate reforms to improve the economic growth outlook given that this is the cheapest way to reduce the funding costs of a subinvestment-grade rating.

The SA Reserve Bank has already agreed to purchase government bonds in the secondary market, but only to ease dysfunctional markets. The Bank has been painfully clear that this is not an attempt to reduce yields (reducing borrowing costs), nor is monetary policy non-functioning. The risk, however, is that if lower interest rates encourage issuance of short-dated bonds at lower borrowing costs, a greater refinancing risk could emerge if the government cannot improve the economic growth outlook.

Herein lies the biggest test yet: though SA benefits from investment-grade institutional strength within its junk rating, this is exactly what the country risks losing if the government can’t find a way to improve the economic growth outlook to stabilise debt.

• Schoeman is Citibank SA economist.

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