Articles by Philippe Burger
The lockdown and physical distancing measures of government impact small and medium-sized companies severely as they lack the financial reserves to survive the crisis. This article proposes immediate financial measures to support companies, large and small, to ensure that a liquidity crisis does not turn into a solvency crisis, putting many companies out of business – and causing large-scale unemployment. On a macroeconomic level the objective is to protect income and jobs by slowing down the rate at which aggregate supply and demand contract.
The projected increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio is set to occur notwithstanding plans to cut the projected increase in government’s salary bill. If government does not overcome labour union resistance to cuts, the debt burden will increase even more. The mounting public debt and government’s apparent inability to reign it in, raises the question whether South Africa finds itself in a debt trap, and if not, what can be done to escape such a trap.
The debt burden of the national government has steadily increased from 27% in 2007. It is heading towards 70% in 2022/3 if this trajectory is not turned around. Further growth in the debt-to-GDP ratio must at least be halted. Different scenarios show this would require a cut in government expenditure of 2% to 3% of GDP (roughly R100 to R150 billion), phased in over the medium term. This means there is no room for a stimulating fiscal policy.
Higher-than-inflation increases in student fees since 2009 often are blamed on declining government subsidies to universities. This is not entirely correct, if one considers real per-student subsidies. Fee increases resulted mainly from cost pressures faced by universities due to growing student numbers and a weakening rand. These pressures will not disappear. Eliminating government wastage is not a durable solution and difficult choices cannot be avoided. So, who should pay for increasing costs, students or government – or which combination of these?
Have real wages fallen behind or increased out of line with productivity? A macroeconomic perspective
Macroeconomic data on wages and productivity suggest that there has not been any constant tendency for real wages either to fall behind or increase out of line with increases in productivity. Upward shifts have affected real wages sporadically, but have subsequently been offset by downward shifts, leaving a one-to-one long-run relationship between real wages and productivity. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom in both the labour union and business worlds.
The share of labour in aggregate income in South Africa has declined significantly since 1993, while that of capital has increased. Concurrently, real wages have increased slower than productivity. This article argues that financialisation and the more aggressive returns-oriented investment strategies applied by large, global investment institutions have translated into investors requiring higher rates of return on capital. This, in turn, has led to the increased adoption of capital-augmenting, labour-saving technology that has reduced labour’s share of total income – with important consequences for income distribution.
While the share of capital increased, labour’s share of total income earned in South Africa fell significantly during the first two decades after 1994. These trends could contribute to a deterioration of income inequality, given that the ownership of capital – and thus the income from capital – is concentrated in fewer individuals than is the case with salaries and wages. This article explores labour’s falling share, with particular reference to the manufacturing and mining sectors.
How suitable is a ‘developmental state’ to tackle unemployment, inequality and poverty in South Africa?
The National Development Plan envisions the achievement of a ‘capable and developmental state’. Developmental states are usually associated with high economic growth. Such states in East Asia often are seen as models for SA to emulate. However, given the structure of the SA economy, state and society, a developmental state is not suitable, nor attainable. The concept of a social investment state is a better alternative, but it will need key institutional and policy reforms to work.
Small and medium-sized firms hold the potential to absorb most of the unemployed in South Africa. In this the NDP may be correct. However, the NDP may not be correct in arguing that exports can be the main catalyst of the growth the country needs to address poverty and employment. Several factors hinder such a strategy. A more domestically-focused policy aimed at production (and services) for local consumption might bear more fruit.