Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said on Wednesday that a Cosatu proposal to transfer some of Eskom's debt to state-asset manager the Public Investment Corporation, which manages civil servant pensions, is a "good idea", adding that all pensions - not just public sector pensions - should be considered.
While the proposal originally put forward by the labour union federation to more than halve the struggling power utility's R450 billion debt-burden did not feature in the Budget, the minister was asked about it at a pre-Budget briefing with journalists.
While Mboweni said he did not want to talk much about Eskom - the key takeaway from his Budget was a proposed three-year R160 billion cut in public-sector wage bill - Mboweni said Cosatu's proposal seemed like a good idea which called for more debate.
"If we go the pension route - it must be all of us. It can’t (only be) public servant pensions, it must be all pensions," Mboweni said. "I think it is a good idea - must be encouraged. Other institutions can look at the option," he added.
The minister said the extent to which the PIC's existing exposure to Eskom debt would be converted to equity would move the debate further.
The PIC, which manages over R2 trillion in assets, invests on behalf of government employee pension funds.
The original proposal by Cosatu, distributed to media on February 3, proposed a debt package to reduce Eskom's debt from R450 billion to R200 billion through the creation of a special purpose finance vehicle, involving a social compact between government, the PIC, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and Industrial Development Corporation.
While the union at one stage expected that President Cyril Ramaphosa would make an announcement about the plan in his State of the Nation Address earlier in the month, it later said that negotiations would continue for a few more weeks.
Nazmeera Moola, head of SA investments at Investec Asset Management, said on Thursday that while she did not think the Cosatu proposal was a bad plan, any debt restructuring plan devised for Eskom would only be a temporary solution for the power utility's many problems. She believes Eskom needs an operational plan if public and private asset managers are going to back it.
Moola was speaking at News24 Frontline's panel discussion on the Budget on Thursday. Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Cosatu's Parliamentary Coordinator Matthew Parks also took part in the discussion, led by News24's editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson.
"I strongly believe that Eskom's issues are not just financial. Financial issues are not the biggest problem - there are operational issues, there are corruption issues," Moola said.
"Without an operational plan for Eskom, a financial plan is a temporary band-aid. If we just lift the debt of Eskom and leave it operating as it is, we will be in exactly the same position in five years' time," Moola said.
She said converting PIC debt to equity, "with a sound operational plan", may make sense.
Things get tricky when it comes to private funds, which are defined contribution funds – meaning members are entitled to what they contributed, Moola said.
Support from the private sector in the form of impact investing could be an option, Moola explained.
"This [impact investing] is something all asset managers, including ourselves, are on board with. This idea that you can use long-term contractual savings to make investments in the economy, that raises potential growth and gives members adequate returns," she said. But for this the private sector must be convinced that there is governance, profitability and that entities are run in a manner that makes sense. Examples of impact investing are funds that are invested in infrastructure projects across Africa, she explained.
Moola said this is a better option than the prescription of assets – which dictates to pension funds what to be invested in, even if the financial return is not viable.
Similarly, Gordhan stressed the importance of repairing operations at state entities. "Whether it is Transnet, Eskom or SAA, all of them have damaged operations because the focus was on stealing and not on making entities as efficient as they could be," he said. Once entities operate efficiently, they can make money and be less dependent on the fiscus, he added.
Commenting on the proposal of using pension funds to deal with Eskom's debt, Gordhan said that using pension money is just one dimension of the "ultimate solution" being sought. "These things [state-owned enterprises] need to start operating," he said.
Gordhan also called for stakeholders to engage in meaningful debate to find creative solutions, and not to be distracted by the "bogey woman" or prescribed assets, being touted as an option. "We can find answers. It is not about prescribed assets versus something else," he said.
No blank cheques
Parks shed more light on the Cosatu proposal, saying that it should be a combination of bonds and equity investments in Eskom. He said it was not a bailout or a "blank cheque" for Eskom. It instead should be considered as "conditional" investment, which all players – government and the private sector can contribute to.
"We want the PIC to have a stake in Eskom, with a seat on the board, to force Eskom to restructure, clean up, deal with corruption and wasteful expenditure," said Parks. Currently there are 30 conditions to this proposal, he added.