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Eskom Power Cuts Intensify as Moody’s Calls It South Africa Risk

By Bloomberg 11 February 2019
Caption
Commercial and residential buildings sit on the city skyline illuminated by electrical lighting in Pretoria, South Africa. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

South Africa’s debt-laden, state-owned power utility, which intensified supply cuts that threaten businesses Monday, continues to represent a significant risk to the country’s finances and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s plan to split the company into three does little to address the producer’s problems, Moody’s Investors Service said.

Providing Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. financial support before taking measures to generate savings at the utility would be credit-negative for the country, Moody’s said in an emailed report Monday. The remedies would entail “unpopular decisions on electricity tariffs and/or additional cost-cutting that would require agreement from key stakeholders,” it said.

Moody’s comments come as Eskom implemented so-called stage 4 rotational power cuts throughout the country on Monday. That involves taking 4,000 megawatts demand out of the system to prevent a complete collapse. While generation units have returned to service, others have continued to trip, according to the utility.

Economic Cost

Power cuts may cost the country as much as 5 billion rand ($364 million) a day, according to the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, a civil-society group.

Regular supply interruptions are creating uncertainty that endangers businesses that are highly dependent on the utility, said Shaun Nel, a spokesman for the Energy Intensive Users Group of South Africa, whose members consume more than 40 percent of the nation’s power and include Anglo American Plc.

“We’re going to see companies close in the smelting industry,” Nel said. Between already-high tariffs and the specter of more supply cuts, the victims will be “small foundries and smelters that shut down and never come back,” he said.

The country is Africa’s biggest steel producer, and Eskom first throttles supply to industrial customers before cutting retail consumers.

Tariff Request

Eskom has asked for permission to raise power tariffs by 15 percent in each of the next three fiscal years, more than triple the average inflation rate over the past 12 months. If allowed, this would ease the government’s contingent-liability risk but stoke inflation and weigh on economic growth, said Moody’s. Small price increases would “maintain pressure on the company’s very weak financial profile,” it said.

Speaking in his state of the nation address last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa initiated a split of the state-owned electric company that is struggling under 419 billion rand of debt and declining demand. A breakup into generation, distribution and transmission businesses will enable each unit to better manage costs and make it easier to raise funding. Credit-rating companies see Eskom as a key risk to Africa’s most-industrialized economy, with blackouts and huge debt a drag on growth prospects.

Moody’s is the only one of the three major ratings companies that has South African debt at investment grade. It raised the outlook on the assessment to stable from negative in March and will publish its next assessment on March 29, a month after the release of the 2019 budget. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni will announce a turnaround plan and rescue package for Eskom in the Feb. 20 speech, Ramaphosa said last week.

The rand erased earlier gains, weakening as much as 0.8 percent to 13.7269 per dollar by 12:52 p.m. in Johannesburg. Yields on rand-denominated government bonds due December 2026 climbed 8 basis points to 8.73 percent, the highest this month.

Moody’s statement adds more negativity to South African markets on a day when dollar strength is hurting emerging-market currencies, said Matete Thulare, an analyst at FirstRand Bank Ltd.

“Markets will now wait for the budget on Feb. 20 to see what comments the agency has to make,” Thulare said. DM

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