By Stella Mapenzauswa
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's government said the economy would grow less than hoped this year due to strikes and power shortages but promised to keep state finances in check, also cutting its budget deficit forecast.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan urged ratings agencies that have downgraded Pretoria's credit over the past year to take note of its fiscal prudence.
"We are running a sustainable fiscal ship," he told reporters before his interim budget speech to parliament in which he sought to allay fears of increased populist spending ahead of elections next year.
"Hopefully the ratings agencies will do their homework and recognise that in a very turbulent environment, and one in which we've got huge historical legacies to overcome, we actually are keeping a fairly good 19-year record of good fiscal management."
The Treasury slashed 2013 growth expectations to 2.1 percent of GDP from 2.7 percent forecast in February, suggesting prospects of a near-term cut in the country's stubbornly high unemployment rate are slim.
Widespread labour strikes and power supply constraints have this year hit the continent's largest economy, which languished in recession in 2009.
But it also lowered the budget deficit forecast for the year to March 2014 to 4.2 percent of GDP from the 4.6 percent seen in February due to lower spending and technical effects from changes to how it calculates the fiscal balance.
Spending for the period was predicted at 1.14 trillion rand against revenue of 999 billion rand, resulting in a much lower deficit than the 4.9 percent that economists polled by Reuters had expected.
Spending is set to rise to 1.24 trillion rand in 2014/15 and 1.44 trillion by 2016/17.
The Treasury said it would strike a balance between keeping the deficit in check while supporting growth along the lines of the National Development Plan, pouring money into health, education, infrastructure, and social assistance to the poor.
MISSING THE BIG IDEA
"The level of expenditure remains well contained, while the fiscal stance avoids a premature consolidation that could jeopardise higher economic growth, which is required to create jobs," it said.
The rand gained against the dollar to 9.7700 from 9.8135 before Gordhan started his speech to parliament, while bonds recovered from session lows on news of the lower deficit forecast.
Analysts also reacted positively to the deficit headlines, but weak growth and a high wage bill remain a concern for ratings agencies, and the budget was devoid of big ideas to move the economy up a gear.
"While some effort is made to commit to an overall spending ceiling, and some re-prioritisation of expenditure is planned, these are piecemeal efforts," said Standard Chartered economist Razia Khan.
"Anyone hoping for a bolder effort to arrest medium-term deterioration will be disappointed."
Weak growth in Europe, a major trading partner, has dampened demand for South African exports and made it difficult for the private sector to create much-needed jobs.
"Labour disputes, electricity shortages and other supply-side disruptions have weighed down business and consumer confidence, and lowered demand for goods and services," the Treasury said.
Economic recovery over the next three years could increase employment by 1.7 percent a year, but this is too little to make a major dent in joblessness that affects a quarter of the labour force.
Both the private and public sectors have been under pressure from frequent labour unrest, which has resulted in above-inflation wage settlements of 7.9 percent in the first half of this year from 7.6 percent in 2012.
The Treasury anticipates inflation to remain below its 6 percent upper-limit target in the next three years, but weakness in the rand, which has fallen nearly 16 percent to the dollar this year, posed a risk to that forecast.
The current account deficit, long a source of vulnerability for the currency during spates of global risk aversion, was projected to remain above 6 percent of GDP over the medium term as savings lag investments.
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