Investing in the SOE sector: Same, same, no longer different

In SA, the SOE sector is too large to ignore, so what strategies can investors employ to achieve investment success?

Oct 20, 2021

5 minutes

Simon Howie
Stephen Naidoo
In SA, the SOE sector is too large to ignore, so what strategies can investors employ to achieve investment success?

The fast view

  • In SA, Government has been unable to provide timeous support to SOEs like SAA, Denel and Landbank.
  • This has resulted in a dramatic drop-off in demand for SOE support, resulting in elevated credit spreads.
  • When government support cannot be relied upon, investors have to treat SOEs the same as any corporate and the basic credit fundamentals of the entity must stack up.
  • Investors require a resilient business model, stable cash flow generation and liquidity, a sustainable capital structure and experienced management.
  • With SOEs accounting for roughly 32% of the listed debt market, the sector is too large to ignore.
  • Investors need to ensure that they find the entities that stack up from a fundamental perspective and engage with them to find constructive solutions.

The credit strength of state-owned entities (SOEs) is usually heavily reliant on Government for financial support, often in the form of annual subsidies and in the ad hoc provision of liquidity or additional equity to retain the confidence of capital markets. Investors will look to this implied support in their analysis, and credit rating agencies will include any expected support in their formal ratings and reviews.

But what happens to SOEs when the government in question can no longer be relied upon, when its own credit rating is under pressure, and any implied support becomes questioned? When it no longer has the liquidity or capacity to help when required? "What happens" is exactly what has played out before our eyes in South Africa, as Government has been unable to provide timeous support when required. SAA went into business rescue, Denel and other SOEs are teetering on the brink of collapse and Land Bank, the essential development bank that supports our agriculture sector, has defaulted on over R40bn of debt. And so, investors react by withdrawing support for SOEs based on the strength of Government, and any expectation of implied support vanishes, and only explicit, contractual government guarantees are trusted. 

The result is a dramatic drop-off in demand for SOE paper, resulting in elevated credit spreads. This widening of credit spreads is in stark contrast to the rest of the market which, as depicted in Figure 1 below, has seen strong demand drive credit spreads back to pre-COVID levels. 

Figure 1: SOE credit spreads have widened significantly

Figure 1: SOE credit spreads have widened significantly

Source: JSE, RMB Markets – Credit spreads over JIBAR as at 1 September 2021

The lack of credit support for SOEs is relatively easy to understand from the perspective of a credit investor. SOEs have a unique investment case when their government is strong and has lots of liquidity. But when that's not the case, investors treat SOEs the same as any corporate, and the basic credit fundamentals of the standalone entity must stack up. Same, same; no longer different.

So, what does it mean when investors treat SOEs the same as any corporate? Well, it is certainly not all bad news. Many corporates issue bonds and raise loans from investors. These corporates are not the same, and some are far stronger than others with different credit ratings. But there are some minimum standards; credit investors require some fundamentals before they lend to a corporate (or standalone SOE).

Both financial and non-financial risks determine the credit profile of an entity.

Credit investors care about risk, and before they invest, ask a simple question: "Can this borrower pay the money back?" With no strong parent, they care only about the borrower. If credit investors don't believe the borrower can pay back the money, they will not buy their bonds or advance them loans. It is like a student wanting a loan with no parent guarantee. On the other hand, if investors are comfortable, they will provide borrowers with the capital required to support their operations or grow. And in return, they will be compensated with payments over the life of the investment and, critically, with full repayment at maturity.

So, what fundamentals are required for credit investors to be comfortable that the answer to the question above is, "Yes, in all likelihood this entity can pay us back." In other words, what do SOEs need to get right to attract capital? Both financial and non-financial risks determine the credit profile of an entity. Understanding these risks allows investors to assess the long-term sustainability of an SOE and make investments that deliver attractive risk-adjusted returns. 

Ultimately, the investment decision comes down to credit fundamentals – which are no different from the corporate sector. Credit investors are looking for: 

  1. A resilient business model that can withstand cyclical downturns;
  2. Stable cash flow generation and liquidity;
  3. A sustainable capital structure; and
  4. Experienced management with strong governance oversight.

Avoiding the SOE sector is not sustainable in the long term, not only because of the sector's importance to the local economy but also because the job of a credit investor is to pick investments that can repay the money and build diversified portfolios. Given the SOE sector accounts for approximately 32% of the listed debt capital market (excluding government bonds), it is simply too large to ignore, and it has correlation benefits for investors. It also offers high credit spreads, given the aversion to the sector from most investors.

If we can't ignore the sector, then the question is, what can investors do? In our view, there are two essential strategies that investors should employ in this sector. Firstly, rather than avoid these entities, do the actual work, and find those that stack up from a fundamental perspective. Analysing the SOE sector could also provide the benefit of picking up positive changes early before the market.

Rather than avoid these entities, do the actual work.

Secondly, investors should engage with SOEs. Given the importance of SOEs to service delivery and infrastructure, we as investors should not just walk away. Investors are aligned with SOEs in wanting them to get the fundamentals right so they can access capital markets. 

We have engaged extensively with SOEs over the last few years, pushing for change to find constructive solutions. We often find engagement happens too late in the process, when institutions are already at their weakest. Proactive engagement has resulted in significant progress, putting state entities in a better position to deliver on their mandate and contribute to the bigger picture. Ultimately, SOEs are fundamental to the national turnaround strategy and key to positioning the country as a trade destination. 

Transnet is an excellent example where an experienced management team has been installed, which has enabled them to clean up shop and hold those responsible for mismanagement accountable. The business model itself is remarkably resilient, with a monopoly in its port and freight rail infrastructure. Management focus is now firmly on the future, with a strong focus on achieving its commercial and developmental objectives.

Engagement, however, has its limitations. It should not be an excuse to plaster over the cracks and holes. All the plaster in the world will not help without a strong foundation – credit fundamentals.

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Simon Howie
Co-Head of SA & Africa Fixed Income
Stephen Naidoo
Investment Specialist​

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