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The repo rate hike is devastating for homeowners and consumers, but what about employers?

Whenever the governor of the South African Reserve Bank (“SARB”), Lesetja Kganyago, announces a hike in the repurchase (“repo”) rate, the first thing that comes to mind, or we see in the headlines, is the impact of the hike on homeowners or consumers with financed vehicles or other lines of prime-linked credit. The impact that the increase in the repo rate has on employers is seldom spoken of, or even written about. In this article, we explore the relationship between the repo rate and the prime rate; how employers are exposed to the impact of an increase in the repo rate and how that inevitably affects the liquidity position of the employer, which may, in severe cases, result in retrenchments.

The repo rate is the rate at which the SARB lends money to commercial banks in South Africa. The rate is adjusted from time to time by the SARB in accordance with its monetary policy to regulate inflation to allow for a stable and growing economy.

The prime rate is the rate at which commercial banks lend to their most favoured customers. Since November 2021, South Africa has seen a cumulative 375basis points increase (ie, 3.75%) – from a low of 3.5% for the repo rate and 7% for the prime lending rate. This has increased pressure on consumers with asset-backed credit such as mortgage bonds and vehicle finance. On 30 March 2023, governor Kganyago surprised the market by announcing that the repo rate would be hiked by 50 basis points thus increasing the repo rate to 7.75% and the prime rate to 11.25%, the highest level since 2009.

The fluctuation of the prime rate affects not only the growth of a business but also determines whether a business can keep meeting its financial obligations and ultimately keep its doors open. When the repo rate increases, this increases the prime rate and results in lenders (such as banks) increasing credit rates, making it more expensive for businesses to secure funding and/or to repay the existing debt that the business requires to sustain its operations. An increase in the prime rate can have varied impacts on businesses. These include:

  • a reduction in cash flow: business owners will have to set aside more cash towards repaying loan amounts;
  • consumers having less discretionary cash available to use on goods and services (especially non-essential goods and services) which may affect revenue;
  • difficulty in obtaining business loans: long-term and short-term debt becomes more expensive;
  • difficulty in repaying prime-linked intercompany loans; and
  • making it more difficult for employers to create or retain jobs.

This may force some employers to consider restructuring their businesses to optimise their resources. When all else fails, employers may have to terminate employees’ employment on the basis of their operational requirements.

Operational requirements are based on the economic, technological, structural or similar needs of an employer. Generally, economic reasons are those that relate to the financial management of the enterprise; technological reasons refer to the introduction of new technology that affects work relationships; and, structural reasons relate to the redundancy of posts consequent to a restructuring of the employer’s enterprise.

A restructuring based on an employer’s difficulty in securing funding for its business due to the high prime rate, or a reduction in its revenue or profit as a result of the high cost of servicing its existing debts, may constitute an economic reason for restructuring and retrenchments. However, if an employer wishes to rely on an economic reason for restructuring, it may be required to disclose its financial and other information to trade unions and affected employees during the consultation process which may lead to retrenchment.

Of course, the courts may investigate whether the employer’s reasons for restructuring are based on a rational commercial decision, having properly consulted with the trade unions and/or affected employees and having considered alternatives to the retrenchments.

If the need to retrench employees arises, employers must heed the Labour Appeal Court’s warning, in General Food Industries Ltd v FAWU, where the court stated that: “the loss of jobs through retrenchment has such a deleterious impact on the life of workers and their families that it is imperative that – even though reasons to retrench employees may exist – they will only be accepted as valid if the employer can show that all viable alternative steps have been considered and taken to prevent the retrenchments or to limit these to a minimum.”

The SARB’s responsibility of regulating inflation to stabilise the country’s economy is a therefore a double-edged sword.  

Alex Taylor

Executive | Banking and Finance

Prencess Mohlahlo

Executive | Employment

Matlhatsi Ntlhoro

 Associate | Banking and Finance