President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s first year to lead the country into general elections comes with heavy burdens on his shoulders.
A respected think tank, Moody’s Investors Service sees a challenge of higher wages and protruding capital expenditures against an economy chiefly dependent on mineral revenue while it shows no further attempt of implementing drastic revenue-raising measures. In a bar graph representation, Moody’s demonstrates that Botswana has a higher wage bill as a percentage of the GDP. The think tank also shows that the capital expenditure and this could be due to investment on mineral projects like the recently launched P21.4 billion Cut 9 project.
Moody’s new presentation shows Botswana wage bill to be around 12 percent as almost equating with that of South Africa but lower than that of eSwatini and Namibia. The latest Moody’s report was focused on sovereigns in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) which the think tanks said they plan further fiscal consolidation to stabilize their elevated debt burdens and reduces pressures on their credit profiles.
It further stated that these plans are generally set under assumptions of broadly stable economic and financing conditions. In the event of shocks, scope to cut government spending rapidly and significantly, or spending flexibility, allows sovereigns to broadly adhere to their plans and lends resiliency to fiscal strength. In the latest report, Moody’s proposed a measure of spending flexibility in SSA consistent with its earlier work for other regions, to inform our assessment of the resilience of fiscal strength to potential shocks.
“Expenditure flexibility, the result of structural features and recent measures, partly determines the resilience of fiscal strength. While SSA sovereigns are generally planning to consolidate their budgets in a way that should stabilize debt, they now face potential negative economic and financing shocks with a weaker starting fiscal position than five years ago.
Expenditure cuts are often easier to implement quickly than revenue-raising measures. Fiscal strength will likely be more resilient for those with capacity to cut expenditure quickly and significantly in the face of a shock,” says Moody’s report. For this country when looking at expenditure on borrowings, Moody’s says Botswana saw only a marginal increase in their interest expenditures.
The agency also said in some cases, higher interest expenditure offset a significant amount of the reduction to spending on wages and transfers, the other components of mandatory spending. Therefore, with Botswana having less interest expenditure pundits may argue that expenditure on wages may be raised as many believe this country’s salaries are below what is expected. Other pundits may cite Botswana’s high capital expenditure as the reason why Masisi’s regime may remain cautious when spending. In this year of elections, calls on spending remain deafening.
Moody’s shows Botswana currently lingers deep in between flexible and severely constrained SSA countries when it comes to mandatory spending. Moody’s measure expenditure flexibility as the share of discretionary spending (capital expenditures and spending on goods and services) in total expenditure. The remainder consists of spending on parts of the budget that governments generally cannot cut rapidly or which can be adjusted more easily over a longer period of time (interest payments, salaries & wages, and transfers).
The rating agency further states that higher borrowing costs and increased debt burdens saw interest expenditures increase over the four year, like it’s a case for Botswana. The time for the polls has become almost ripe with only a matter of weeks Batswana will be lined up to vote for what they expect and what they were promised. Botswana’s elections are held after every five years and Moody’s has noted that this country together with most SSA sovereigns plan to consolidate their budgets to stabilize debt as they are now more vulnerable to potential negative economic and financing because they are in a weaker fiscal position than five years ago.
In January this year Moody’s said Botswana was going at a snail’s pace in fiscal consolidation efforts and this could increase policy uncertainty ahead of the 2019 general elections. This was before Masisi increase salaries in April. According to the rating agency, ahead of elections in Botswana, the authorities have been envisaging a more gradual pace of fiscal consolidation.
The mandatory spending factor and political pressure
While Masisi may have increase salaries in April this year and adjusted wages of disciplined or armed forces later, something which some of his critics call political gimmick, he has a bigger headache of managing high wages and walking along the boundaries of mandatory spending. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has always advised Botswana to reduce its wage bill which has been seen to be higher than expected.
April this year, the season of the national polls, Masisi led a government initiative to increase public servants salaries for financial year 2019/20 with an increment of 10 percent for scales A and B and 6 percent for scales C and D. Last year IMF suggested that Botswana cut the size of its civil service, something which Masisi appeared to have almost heeded to when he faced the international media on the issue when he said, “we are more efficient, we are leaner, meaner, and we can do business and we are more attractive to the private sector for them to invest”.
However this was quickly tackled by critics including legislator-cum-economist Ndaba Gaolathe, who said there is no compelling evidence that can suggest that Botswana is in a desperate anomaly that requires it to cut off the size of its civil service. Masisi may have toyed with the idea of trimming jobs despite him being a self-proclaimed “Jobs President” just as he assumed office. He is yet to implement National Employment Policy and has been promising jobs in the time when Botswana faces worst record of income inequality and high unemployment rate.
Meanwhile it has been reported that the April salary increment adds additional cost of a little more than P1 billion per annum to government. It is also said the government wage bill is high by international standards, as it currently stands at 11.3 percent of GDP, against the international threshold of 5.0 percent of GDP. Moody’s places the wage bill at around 12 percent of the GDP and recognizes its loftiness when compared to its Sub-Sahara Africa counterparts. Observers believe Masisi is going to be careful with his spending despite a further call for wage hike.
On the dark-point the budget proposals for the 2018/2018 overall balance is estimated at a deficit of P6.35 billion (or 3.3 percent of GDP), which is expected to worsen to P7.79 billion (or 3.8 percent of GDP) in 2019/2020. A major factor when government considers further spending, an add to Masisi’s headache. Also, government acknowledges positive growth of 4.5 percent in the domestic propelled by non-mining sectors but points to a declining global economy which grew by 3.6 percent in 2018 and is anticipated to only grow at 3.3 percent in 2019.
Bank of Botswana however has said the new salary hike will not in anytime have any inflationary effect or cause a collapse. The central bank also said the wage increase will not shake the domestic economy. Already trade unions are seeking for a further increase of salaries.
A Malaysian private firm Performance Management and Delivery Unit(PEMANDU) who conducted a salary adjustment on behalf of the Directorate of the Public Service Management (DPSM) “remunerations system project report for grades A to D” was unfazed by government’s lack of funds to spend on increase of wages. Government hired PEMANDU as a consultant at a tune of P 17, 6 million.
On the issue of high wage bill, PEMANDU sees that as an excuse by government to avoid motivating its workforce. “The increase in wage bill represents approximately 10.3 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Products (GDP), the current wage bill being 9.4 percent of GDP. This is still below the regional Sub-Saharan bench mark of 11 percent,” states the report.
The PEMANDU proposal if implemented will add an additional P1.23 billion per annum. PEMANDU has made a proposal of a salary hike of 20 percent for grades A and B; 10 percent for grades C and D and 15 percent for grade E and F. According to the Malaysian firm the new implementation was to bridge the widening gap between lower and higher paid civil servants, while higher grades of E and F should receive no increment in the proposals and keeps their range.
Government before increasing salaries for the public sector in April has always promised that the PEMANDU report will be implemented. However recently something seems to have changed, Vice President Slumber Tsogwane made an announcement suggesting that government is constrained to put more funds for increment of civil servant wages as per the PEMANDU report.
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The recent discovery of a pandemic, Covid-19, which moves at a pace of unimaginable and unpredictable proportions; locking people inside homes and barring human interactions with its dreaded death threat, is currently being felt.
Member of Parliament for Kanye North, Thapelo Letsholo has cautioned Government against excessive borrowing and poorly managed debt levels.
He was speaking in Parliament on Tuesday delivering Parliament’s Finance Committee report after assessing a motion that sought to raise Government Bond program ceiling to P30 billion, a big jump from the initial P15 Billion.
Government Investment Account (GIA) which forms part of the Pula fund has been significantly drawn down to finance Botswana’s budget deficits since 2008/09 Global financial crises.
The 2009 global economic recession triggered the collapse of financial markets in the United States, sending waves of shock across world economies, eroding business sentiment, and causing financiers of trade to excise heightened caution and hold onto their cash.
The ripple effects of this economic catastrophe were mostly felt by low to middle income resource based economies, amplifying their vulnerability to external shocks. The diamond industry which forms the gist of Botswana’s economic make up collapsed to zero trade levels across the entire value chain.
The Upstream, where Botswana gathers much of its diamond revenue was adversely impacted by muted demand in the Midstream. The situation was exacerbated by zero appetite of polished goods by jewelry manufacturers and retail outlets due to lowered tail end consumer demand.
This resulted in sharp decline of Government revenue, ballooned budget deficits and suspension of some developmental projects. To finance the deficit and some prioritized national development projects, government had to dip into cash balances, foreign reserves and borrow both externally and locally.
Much of drawing was from Government Investment Account as opposed to drawing from foreign reserve component of the Pula Fund; the latter was spared as a fiscal buffer for the worst rainy days.
Consequently this resulted in significant decline in funds held in the Government Investment Account (GIA). The account serves as Government’s main savings depository and fund for national policy objectives.
However as the world emerged from the 2009 recession government revenue graph picked up to pre recession levels before going down again around 2016/17 owing to challenges in the diamond industry.
Due to a number of budget surpluses from 2012/13 financial year the Government Investment Account started expanding back to P30 billion levels before a series of budget deficits in the National Development Plan 11 pushed it back to decline a decline wave.
When the National Development Plan 11 commenced three (3) financial years ago, government announced that the first half of the NDP would run at budget deficits.
This as explained by Minister of Finance in 2017 would be occasioned by decline in diamond revenue mainly due to government forfeiting some of its dividend from Debswana to fund mine expansion projects.
Cumulatively since 2017/18 to 2019/20 financial year the budget deficit totaled to over P16 billion, of which was financed by both external and domestic borrowing and drawing down from government cash balances. Drawing down from government cash balances meant significant withdrawals from the Government Investment Account.
The Government Investment Account (GIA) was established in accordance with Section 35 of the Bank of Botswana Act Cap. 55:01. The Account represents Government’s share of the Botswana‘s foreign exchange reserves, its investment and management strategies are aligned to the Bank of Botswana’s foreign exchange reserves management and investment guidelines.
Government Investment Account, comprises of Pula denominated deposits at the Bank of Botswana and held in the Pula Fund, which is the long-term investment tranche of the foreign exchange reserves.
In June 2017 while answering a question from Bogolo Kenewendo, the then Minister of Finance & Economic Development Kenneth Mathambo told parliament that as of June 30, 2017, the total assets in the Pula Fund was P56.818 billion, of which the balance in the GIA was P30.832 billion.
Kenewendo was still a back bench specially elected Member of Parliament before ascending to cabinet post in 2018. Last week Minister of Finance & Economic Development, Dr Thapelo Matsheka, when presenting a motion to raise government local borrowing ceiling from P15 billion to P30 Billion told parliament that as of December 2019 Government Investment Account amounted to P18.3 billion.
Dr Matsheka further told parliament that prior to financial crisis of 2008/9 the account amounted to P30.5 billion (41 % of GDP) in December of 2008 while as at December 2019 it stood at P18.3 billion (only 9 % of GDP) mirroring a total decline by P11 billion in the entire 11 years.
Back in 2017 Parliament was also told that the Government Investment Account may be drawn-down or added to, in line with actuations in the Government’s expenditure and revenue outturns. “This is intended to provide the Government with appropriate funds to execute its functions and responsibilities effectively and efficiently” said Mathambo, then Minister of Finance.
Acknowledging the need to draw down from GIA no more, current Minister of Finance Dr Matsheka said “It is under this background that it would be advisable to avoid excessive draw down from this account to preserve it as a financial buffer”
He further cautioned “The danger with substantially reduced financial buffers is that when an economic shock occurs or a disaster descends upon us and adversely affects our economy it becomes very difficult for the country to manage such a shock”