Although not unexpected, the recent downgrading of South Africa’s credit rating by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) elicited wide reaction.

The foreign currency rating was downgraded to BBB-, which is one notch away from the classification of this section of South Africa’s government debt as speculative. Rand-denominated debt received a rating of BBB+, which is two notches higher.

As rand-denominated South African government bonds held by foreigners are approximately four times the amount for foreign currency debt, the BBB+ rating is actually of more importance.

The difference between the two ratings also indicates that the risks inherent in South Africa’s international financial position are crucial: the relatively high current account deficit, the poor export performance, the dominant role of portfolio investments in capital inflows, the relatively low level of foreign reserves and the vulnerability of the rand exchange rate.

If one wants to assess the fairness of South Africa’s credit rating, it is important to remember that credit ratings are relative. In other words South Africa is not rated in isolation but in comparison with its peers.

As the South African government attaches much importance to the country’s membership of the Brics group, it is fitting to look at how South Africa compares with the other members.

What is striking is that four of the five Brics countries have a BBB- rating for foreign currency debt: South Africa, Brazil, India and Russia. (China is the exception with an AA rating.) Of these four, South Africa and Brazil’s rating outlooks are stable, whereas those of India and Russia are negative.

Other countries with a BBB- rating are Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Iceland, Morocco, Romania and Uruguay – a very strange mix of countries indeed!

If one considers government bonds denominated in a country’s own currency, the picture is a little different, with South Africa and Brazil enjoying a BBB+ rating, followed by Russia with BBB and India with BBB-.

The starting point in any comparison of the rationale behind the rating of the different countries is the state of their government finances. The most important figures appear in the table above right.


The table certainly does not paint a uniform picture, which implies that the rating process is not of a mechanistic nature but depends largely on the judgement of the analysts concerned.

Russia appears to be in a much better position than the other countries. This fact notwithstanding, S&P’s rating outlook for Russia is negative – in other words the next step will probably be a downgrade to speculative status.

The problem is that although Russia’s ability to meet its debt obligations is apparently beyond reproach, it is being questioned because of the country’s political situation, including the application of international sanctions as a result of its meddling in the Ukraine.

India is the other extreme with the highest budget deficit and a total debt just slightly less than that of Brazil. All that counts in its favour is that a very small percentage of its government debt is held by foreigners.

Centre of group

India’s ability to reduce its budget deficit, among others by cutting subsidies and introducing a goods and services tax to steady government revenue, is being questioned, hence its negative rating outlook.

This puts South Africa and Brazil at the centre of the group and it is therefore not surprising that they have the same credit rating. However, Brazil’s gross government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product is nearly 50 percent higher than that of South Africa. Brazil’s ability to reduce its debt is not as good because its interest rates are much higher than its growth rate.

However, the common factor for all four of these countries is the need to accelerate economic growth (see graph) and S&P’s lack of faith in their ability to do so. The credibility of economic policy, as well as the governments’ ability to implement the necessary reforms, is in question.

South Africa and Brazil, in particular, have much in common: deterioration in fiscal policy, a weakening current account of the balance of payments, low economic growth, mixed policy signals and a lack of credibility.

Another commonality is that both the South African and Brazilian governments have expressed their dissatisfaction with S&P’s downgrades and claim that their economies are fundamentally sound.

One could, of course, question S&P’s credit ratings as they are to some extent subjective, as mentioned previously. However, this is the harsh reality confronting investors. The only meaningful response would be to prove S&P wrong and for the performance of the economy to exceed the agency’s expectations.

* Jac Laubscher is Sanlam’s group economist.