Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Preparing for the Budget Speech

It's a good thing that Pravin Gordhan is not one who is easily rattled. At least he doesn't show it if he is. Very few people in any job could be in a more stressful situation than our finance minister is in now. Multiple branches of the ANC are calling for his head, a rumoured potential replacement has been nominated for parliament, and he is preparing for the most important public event on his calendar, the budget speech, which needs to balance powerful conflicting interests.

With the ANC under pressure and policy tide turning toward populism as a release valve on the one hand, and an ailing economy in desperate need of some freedom therapy on the other, Gordhan has his work cut out. He is walking a tight rope. What we want him to say is this: "We are privatising the SOEs, phasing out state welfare and cutting taxes." This would catch the ears of the business world and spark a new era of economic growth. The rand would literally jump in value, but he would certainly lose his job. The ANC Youth League, Women's League and the MKTV would be joined by a host of more conservative ANC structures and members in calling for his head and Zuma would garner more than enough support to bring down the axe. But it's nice to fantacise about a budget that would actually help the economy.

To win back his detractors would require exactly the opposite of what we need. Increase taxes on the wealthy, more welfare and tons of investment in black business. However Gordhan is both intelligent and moral, at least when standing next to many of his ANC comrades, so there is no chance this will happen either. Besides, I doubt he could care less about what Collen Maine and company have to say. No exponents of this line of thinking have ever shown any understanding of economics, or even the ability to predict the consequences of ones actions. Unfortunately these people can say whatever they like, since they are not in a position to make the decisions and so will never be held accountable. No wonder Gordhan ignores them.

What is likely to happen is this: subtle tax increases attempting to raise tax income without driving away investment and subtle spending cuts in an attempt to reduce costs without sending the populists into a state of outrage. This is why he left big issues like income tax and SOEs alone last year and will probably do so again this year while focusing on things like sugar and sin taxes and cutting down on wasteful expenditure.

So I have pretty low expectations for this budget speech. I don't see anything radical happening, for better or worse. Gordhan, for the sake of keeping his job, without ruining the economy, will probably just deliver more of the same. But I hope I'm wrong.

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