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In my last blog post (see here) I pointed out that since 2009 I have advocated the privatization of Temasek and GIC and the distribution of shares to Singapore citizens. This was also a plank of the Reform Party manifesto in GE 2011 (see here). Naturally there has been a lot of interest in this idea, if not controversy, including an attack by some YPAP activists back in 2009. Most of their criticisms were simplistic and easy to answer.
However there has continued to be a lot of interest in the mechanics of how such a privatization might be achieved and how the shares would be distributed. Recently an anonymous commentator asked posted this question on TRE:
Kenneth, what about future generations of Singaporeans? How does it work? Every Singaporean gets one share? How?
This article attempts to address these questions.
But before then I would just like to answer the question as to why I am proposing privatization in the first place.
The most fundamental reason is transparency and accountability. Temasek’s charter says it aims to “create and maximize risk-adjusted returns over the long-term”. There is no definition of what long-term means. GIC merely says that its objective is to deliver “good long-term returns for the government” which is defined as “good long-term returns for the Government – a reasonable risk-adjusted rate above global inflation over a 20-year investment horizon. “As any economist knows “investing for the long-term” can be used to cover a multitude of sins. Almost any period of poor performance can be explained away by saying that it is temporary. Without the discipline and transparency of a market listing and need to provide full information to investors there has to be the suspicion that management will seek to enrich themselves and/or tolerate poor performance. I wrote about these issues and the need to privatize Temasek in particular in my blog post, “Chesapeake Energy and Temasek: A Tale of Two CEOs and Shareholder Democracy” where I said:
It is instructive to contrast the power of shareholder democracy in shining a spotlight on management conflicts of interest and excessive compensation with our own powerlessness in finding out what is the real picture at our own sovereign wealth funds. Of course an incorruptible government ensures that there is no egregious wallowing at the corporate trough, like the shenanigans at Chesapeake, even though the PAP elite believes it is not in our interests to be told very much of what is going on. Even our (s)elected President has little power, and seemingly little interest, in keeping an eye on the investment performance of our SWFs, despite his choice of a pair of spectacles as his electoral symbol.
“…as a first stage to transparency and the privatization of our SWFs we need to separate the stakes in domestic companies from foreign investments. Temasek should be split in two. In fact if it had been a listed company in the US, for instance, management would have taken that route in order to raise shareholder value. With the split, the market is likely to value the two successor companies as a whole more highly than the original. This is because of the improved management focus and transparency resulting from the split. As a rule investors prefer to construct their own bundles of different businesses rather than have to invest in a company where management have made that choice for them.
Another reason for privatizing and listing Temasek and GIC is so that management compensation and incentives can be made transparent. Shareholders can check whether the incentives of management then are in alignment with the objective of increasing shareholder value. If there is excessive compensation for mediocre performance, then shareholders can vote against management at the AGM just as at Chesapeake. In the last resort they can vote with their feet by selling their stock which is why companies with poor corporate governance trade at a lower multiple than similar companies, ceteris paribus.”
As I explained in my last article, “Has Temasek Found A Cure for Balding” the lack of information and the valuations placed on assets that the government has injected and continues to inject into Temasek leave large question marks over the true track record of the managers. There is no reason for this excessive secrecy. After all look at Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet’s investment vehicle, which is around the same size in terms of net assets which publishes quarterly and annual reports as required by the US Securities and Exchange Commission with exhaustive explanations of its accounting policies. Having to release so much information has not affected its ability to generate returns.
Both Temasek and GIC give their shareholder as the Government of Singapore. But the shareholders should be the people of Singapore and the managers should be accountable to the people. This is the rationale for my plan to privatize Temasek and GIC and distribute shares to Singapore citizens. By doing so, together with allowing Singaporeans to own the freehold of their HDBs, we create a true property-owning democracy rather than the fake “porcelain rice bowl” model that the PAP government is so fond of. The 99-year leasehold coupled with the right to move us with inadequate compensation whenever there is a profitable development opportunity is akin to feudal land tenure for the 90% of us who cannot afford private property. In fact it is even worse since there is no asset to pass on to one’s children.
To distribute shares equally to all Singapore citizens would also be a powerful boost to wealth equality without having to resort to redistributive policies on taxation, which by reducing the incentives to work and invest for the most productive may reduce potential output. A rough guesstimate using the deliberately opaque and inadequate information provided in the government’s annual Statement of Assets and Liabilities suggests that this could be potentially worth more than $100,000 per citizen. Obviously with a listing the valuation would depend on the market and the greater the transparency and measurable alpha generated by the managers the more likely the shares would be to trade at a premium to book value. On the other hand if Temasek and GIC’s portfolios are very optimistically marked in terms of valuation and the less liquid the portfolio the lower the market valuation is likely to be.
There are of course a multitude of questions that would have to be resolved. These are some of them together with some possible answers:
How should the shares be distributed? In my view it should be equal shares for everyone though consideration could be given to allocating more shares to those who had done NS as compensation for the economic sacrifice. Of course this might be opposed by women who could justifiably point to the economic sacrifice entailed by child-bearing though most women who have children do so as one-half of a couple. The sacrifice affects both parties. A fairer way might be for Singapore citizens with less than ten years citizenship to be excluded unless they had done NS.
Should shares be given to those under 21 at the time? Probably not on the grounds that they have not made the economic sacrifices that the older generation has to build up the stock of assets. New citizens would not get shares though perhaps consideration could be given to keeping back a certain proportion of shares to allocate to those who had done NS.
What happens to CPF contributions in future that have been a big source of cheap funding for GIC? I have advocated privatizing CPF and making contributions voluntary (while keeping their tax deductibility). Even with the endowment effect of cheap CPF borrowing GIC’s performance has been lamentably low (see link).
What would happen to future government surpluses? There is no reason for the government to run surpluses once an adequate level of reserves has been reached. Of course if and when shares in our SWFs are allocated to citizens there may be a period of adjustment during which the government would have to run a bigger budget surplus to offset additional spending by the private sector as it adjusts its stock of financial assets to the desired level rather than the artificially high one imposed by government. Budget surpluses could be invested in the SWFs and the new shares created held back to reward new citizens who had done NS or children of existing citizens.
Is there not a risk that Singaporeans would just squander their new wealth or be cheated by unscrupulous individuals with inside knowledge? Privatization and the distribution of shares in state-owned enterprises was given a bad name in the former Communist bloc. The selling off of state assets cheaply to the former managers of the companies with the use of loans from state banks helped create the class of Russian oligarchs who became billionaires literally overnight. However in this case the problem would be avoided as there is no requirement for the state to raise money through privatization. Instead shares would be distributed equally. Some Singaporeans might want to see some sort of vesting process imposed to ensure that Singaporeans could not squander their new-found wealth. However such fears are undoubtedly ill-founded as well as being patronizing and elitist It is exactly the same kind of attitude as the current government has towards our citizen’s rights to know how our assets are being managed and even to know the true extent of the reserves. If markets tend towards efficiency then the share price should broadly reflect the mean value of the probability distribution of future returns. The shareholders would be the best judge of whether the share prices of our privatized SWFs were overvalued or undervalued on this basis.
How would you prevent foreigners gaining control of Singapore’s crown jewels by buying up the shares held by Singaporeans? Firstly most of Temasek’s domestic investments are not in high technology areas but in mature industries. Temasek has sold several of the companies in its domestic portfolio to foreign buyers in the past. It is difficult to argue why the management of a privatized Temasek should not be able to recommend a bid by a foreign company for any of its assets or even for Temasek itself and why Singaporeans should not be free to accept. Adequate safeguards could be put in place by requiring any takeover offer from a foreign company for a Singaporean company above a certain size or in a strategic sector to require approval from a Committee on Foreign Investment (like CFIUS in the US or the FIRB in Australia). It should also be coupled with a strengthened competition regulator given that Temasek holds many quasi-monopolies in the local market.
These are a few thoughts on the issue. I advocated privatizing Temasek and GIC primarily to impose transparency and accountability on the management through the discipline of the market. There would be a transparency premium to the valuation. Distributing shares to Singaporeans would also establish a direct nexus between our citizens and the managers of our reserves and give them the power to replace them in a direct manner as opposed to the indirect method of having to replace the government. At the same time it would give ordinary citizens a significant endowment which would greatly reduce inequalities in the distribution of wealth and thus contribute to much greater equality of opportunity. This would be along the lines suggested by Rawls, the American philosopher, in his later ideas on the creation of a property owning democracy. Given that Singapore’s state should already be wealthy enough to provide everyone with significant property assets, the conflict and loss of economic efficiency resulting from redistributive taxation could be avoided. My ideas may be too radical, even heretical, for the current orthodoxy that state capitalism works best. However Singaporeans can increasingly see that the current model has failed to raise living standards significantly for the past decade or more. My hope is that this will start a debate and I look forward to your comments.
The question of the transparency and proper accounting of our reserves has been a primary concern of mine for some time, in fact ever since 2009. A major theme has been that currently we have inadequate safeguards to prevent them being frittered away by an irresponsible government instead of being used for the benefit of the people whose hard work and sacrifice have built them up. In the RP responses to Budget 2012 and 2013 (see here and here) I complained that our Budget presentation was a masterpiece of obfuscation and misdirection and that there were several glaring discrepancies in the accounts. I followed this up with two letters to the Finance Minister (here and here) complaining about discrepancies and a further letter to Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF (here).
I have also written extensively at www.sonofadud.com on the question of the transparency of our reserves and why the numbers do not add up(see here for just one example). A further list of links is given at the bottom of this post.
Thus as the person who raised this issue first I am well qualified to adjudicate on the issues raised in the recent argument between Christopher Balding and the person calling himself “Kok Ah Snook” .
After I had been writing about these issues for some time, I found that Chris had in April 2012 been writing in a rather alarmist and sensationalist style and making unsupported allegations of fraud about what he believed to be large shortfalls in our reserves. However his analysis was merely speculation until I spoke to him and pointed where on the MOF website he could find a sub-standard balance sheet, without any explanatory notes, which the Finance Minister is required to publish annually under the Constitution. The balance sheet is supposed to represent Singapore’s assets and liabilities.
After some discussion I then flew out to meet him in Hong Kong where we agreed to work together towards a joint presentation of what we had found. While looking at his work I noticed certain errors or implicit and unjustified assumptions that he appeared to have made in his calculations of what should the theoretical total of Singapore’s gross and net assets and pointed these out to him.
However despite what I thought was an agreement he started publishing fresh articles independently using some of the information that I had sent to him. Since it seemed to be difficult to work with him I went ahead and published my conclusions in the article above where I cited some of the errors he had made in his analysis. However despite this I broadly agreed with his conclusion that the theoretical level of gross and net assets should have been much larger differing only in the order of magnitude. Whereas Chris calculated that there was potentially over a trillion $ in missing assets my more rigorous assumptions reduced the theoretical shortfall on conservative assumptions to the level of $300 billion or so.
In later articles (see here and here) I argued that GIC would have had to have earned less than 2.5% p.a. in S$ terms, even allowing for a cost of government borrowing from the CPF of 3.5%. to generate such a low level of net assets . This was after subtracting Temasek’s publicly stated level of net assets and a conservative estimate of revenue from land sales from the total of gross assets shown in the Statement of Assets and Liabilities. This was actually much more damning because it established that even the most careful analysis suggested cause for concern that the managers of our reserves appeared to be achieving very poor returns.
So let us get back to the current controversy. I read what Mr. “Kok” wrote (and also met up with him). He is technically correct that there is no theoretical difference between owning assets worth $100 directly and owning shares in a company with net assets of $100. However I do agree with Chris that it is a cause for concern if the assets are injected into the company for free or not for fair value and that the managers of the company subsequently revalue the assets and claim the gain as their own investment performance.
The view that Temasek’s presentation is unorthodox and misleading is supported by current accounting practice (as exemplified by US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) Statement No. 141 which can be found here). This requires that:
20. The acquirer shall measure the identiﬁable assets acquired, the liabilitiesassumed, and any noncontrolling interest in the acquiree at their acquisition-date fair values.
In the case of a “bargain purchase”, one where the fair value of the assets acquired is above that of the consideration paid, the “the acquirer shall recognize the resulting gain in earnings on the acquisition date. The gain shall be attributed to the acquirer.”
Accounting Standards Classification (ASC) 805 has superseded FASB Statement 141 but the instructions remain the same. The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) has very similar, if not identical guidelines on how to treat acquisitions of undervalued assets.
Of course Temasek as an exempt private company is not required to publish its audited statutory consolidated accounts though presumably these should be in accordance with US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) or IFRS.
At the time of Temasek’s acquisition of these group companies from the government, even if there was no fair value determination for the companies transferred, Temasek should have recorded them at the book value they were showing in the acquiree company’s accounts. Temasek paid $354 million for the 35 companies by issuing shares to the government. It is hard to believe that this was book value even then. It is likely that Singapore Airlines alone even in 1974 had a book value of close to that figure.
If Temasek had chosen either to use fair values or book values for the assets acquired then the resultant gains should have been taken to income on the date of inception and added to the reserves. The starting base for calculation of returns would then have been much higher and subsequent returns correspondingly lower, probably by a significant amount. Even if the acquiree companies’ book value was used it is highly likely that there would have been a higher starting value for Temasek’s initial assets and a significantly lower rate of return since then.
This does matter if you are a publicly listed company because investors will look at the track record of the managers. If you were a hedge fund manager and your returns were inflated because they include returns that belong to prior periods then that would be highly misleading and probably fraudulent. Regulators would definitely be concerned. If the fund’s returns were padded by the injection of undervalued assets from other funds then this would also be misrepresentation of the true performance of the fund. Before regulators tightened their rules on marking of assets and liabilities to fair value, which should be market values as far as possible, it is probably true to say that it was fairly common for investment bank proprietary trading desks to build up hidden reserves by undervaluing some of their assets. These could then be released when necessary to cover losses or when bonus payments were calculated.
It has been argued by “Kok” among others that the glaring undervaluation of Temasek’s initial portfolio does not matter in the case of Temasek because it is a government-owned company and it is not marketing shares or investment funds based on its performance. It was just a choice of accounting treatment and after all no money was siphoned off.
However, this is far too naïve a view. Singaporeans are the investors in Temasek and ultimately the owners of the assets. If the government is able to convince them that they are better managers of these assets then they really are then the voters may be swayed to vote for them when they otherwise would not. Also the CEO of Temasek has talked in the past of co-investment funds to be sold to Singaporeans and others to allow them to invest alongside Temasek. Should these come to fruition then investors need to know what the true performance of the current managers is. The remuneration plans of Temasek’s managers are also linked to long-term investment returns. If these appear better than they really are then payouts to managers may have been larger than they should have been.
Finally a future group of managers may decide at some stage to partner with a private equity firm or firms to make a buyout bid for Temasek’s assets that a future government might accept. If some of the assets in the portfolio are still significantly undervalued, and only the future managers know about it, then Singaporeans may be seriously shortchanged. This is unlikely but not inconceivable. After all Nomura’s private equity division bought the Ministry of Defence housing stock in the UK for a fraction of its true worth generating reported profits for Nomura of US$1.9 billion and setting Guy Hands, the then head of Nomura’s Principal Finance Group, on thr road to a reported personal fortune of £100 million by 2011.
Despite Balding being on the right lines his analysis is unfortunately vitiated by some elementary mistakes as usual. These unfortunately undermine the credibility of his case though they do not affect the main argument. He mentions Changi Airport Group (CAG) and says that the government invested $5.68 billion since the late 1970s and is then selling it at a loss to Temasek for $3.2 billion in 2009. However he omits to take account of any dividends paid by CAG to the government since its inception. Given that their profit after tax in the first year after corporatization (2009/10) was S227 million the positive cash flow since Changi’s inception may have been several billion dollars. This would have reduced the headline investment figure of $5.68 billion probably significantly. Against this must be set the unexplained entry in the consolidated cash flow statement showing $580 million received from CAAS. Perhaps this represents revenues collected by CAAS prior to corporatization and subsequently paid to CAG. In this case the purchase price of $3.2 billion should be reduced by this amount. In addition CAG’s balance sheet showed cash of another $500 million as well as the $580 million and both amounts should be deducted from the purchase consideration to determine the enterprise value.
The purchase price was purely notional anyway because the purchase was financed with a simultaneous capital injection by MOF of the same amount. While the capital injection will add to Temasek’s asset base but not increase its returns, the purchase price of $3.2 billion is well below what such an asset with predictable and growing cash flows should fetch in an open auction. Recent airport sales (Edinburgh, Stansted) have achieved Enterprise Value/Earnings Before Interest Tax Depreciation and Amortization (EV/EBITDA) multiples of 15 to 17 times. Putting CAG on a EV/EBITDA multiple of 17 times implies that in 2009 it should have been worth at least $7.3 billion and on the basis of the latest results that would have risen to nearly $16 billion.
So exactly the same thing is happening as in 1974 despite recent accounting standards updates that mandate that acquired assets should be recorded at fair value in the acquiror’s books with gains recorded on acquisition. All the previous reasons why this is wrong apply here. Yet again, the Singapore citizen and taxpayer gets a raw deal because the value of the assets concerned is not being maximized as they would be if CAG was put up for auction. It would be interesting to see how the value of CAG is treated in Temasek’s statutory consolidated accounts. Of course undervaluing the asset creates a very useful reserve for a future rainy day for whoever happens to be the managers of Temasek then!
Unfortunately Chris Balding also harms the useful points he makes by the wild accusations of fraud and Bernie Madoff he flings around for which he has no evidence (though it cannot be disproved either). This risks the very valid questions about the management of our reserves being ignored or not taken seriously. Given the recent rising trend of threats of defamation suits to try and silence critidism, culminating in a government body threatening to sue an ordinary individual for the first time, there is a real risk that someone in Singapore could repeat Chris’s accusations and end up getting sued. It is notable that no one has threatened to sue me yet despite the very serious questions I have raised (though Kumaran Pillai at TOC lied and told me he had received a phone call from Temasek ordering him to take down one of my posts but could not produce any evidence when asked). This is because I make sure that what I write is accurate.
Ultimately the only way we are going to answer these questions is through transparency. That is why I have called since 2009 for the privatization of Temasek and GIC and the distribution of shares to Singapore citizens. That is the only way we will get to know what our reserves are really worth and whether the managers have been turning dross into gold or, as I suspect, the reverse.
Roach Motel Or Investing for the Long-Term: You Decide What Best Describes Temasek’s Investment Strategy.
A “Roach Motel”, originally a term used to describe a cockroach trap, has become a metaphor used by hedge fund managers to describe an investment that is too large in relation to the size of the company’s equity capital or the liquidity of the stock to allow the manager to exit without taking an unacceptable loss. For better or worse, the manager is locked into the stake and the only exit is normally either through a sale of the company, which is fine as long as a price higher than the entry price is achieved, or else through bankruptcy and the loss of the entire investment.
Roach motels sprang to mind when I read this morning that Temasek Holdings is selling a 2.5% stake, or 400 million shares in SingTel with the option to sell another 100 million shares
Read the rest of this entry
Recently Chesapeake Energy, the second biggest US gas producer, has been much in the news. The company has been having cash flow problems since the CEO, Aubrey McClendon, took a wrong bet on the direction of gas prices and bought back its hedges. This has left it exposed to a big decline in natural gas prices in the US and a market glut.
Why this is a cause for concern is that the company has large spending commitments which leave it facing a liquidity crisis. It has said it must sell assets worth between US$11.5 billion and US$14 billion this year to pay down debt and finance its capital requirements. Shareholder unhappiness with the performance of the CEO and some of the sweetheart deals and excessive compensation he has received from the company boiled over at the AGM on 8 June. The two directors on the company’s slate standing for re-election were overwhelmingly rejected by shareholders. A majority of votes were also cast in favour of a nonbinding proposal to allow major shareholders to nominate board candidates. In another manifestation of shareholder anger, 80% of shareholders voted to deliver a stern reprimand to the company over its pay to and supervision of the CEO, Aubrey McClendon.
McClendon recently also had to settle shareholder lawsuits over the company’s preferential treatment of him in 2008 when he faced margin calls on the stock he had borrowed to buy. This included having to pay the company back the US$12 million it paid him to buy his collection of antique maps which now adorn Chesapeake’s boardrooms. And very fine maps they are too, or so it appears. Perhaps Temasek’s management have been lucky enough to see the maps when they visited the company! However I am confident that the excitement of seeing these fine examples of early cartography did not cloud the excellent judgement of those entrusted with managing our citizens’ forced savings.
The upshot of Chesapeake’s liquidity crisis is that unless the company achieves its asset sales targets it may have to declare bankruptcy in order to get out of its capital commitments. The problem is that when a company faces cash flow problems buyers tend to hang back in the hope that they may be able to get the assets cheaper if those problems get worse. Of course they face the risk that a competitor might step in to buy them but by waiting they might also learn of new potential contingent liabilities that might affect the value of the assets. Another possibility is that a suitor steps in to buy Chesapeake and makes what is known as a “takeunder” offer where the price is less than where the stock price is currently trading. The well-known activist investor, Carl Icahn (who is almost as venerable as our dear former Minister Mentor), clearly is hoping for a much higher takeover offer or a bidding war because he has accumulated about 8% of the company. However there is still the risk that a bidder might wait for the company to enter bankruptcy and then make an offer at an enterprise value that leaves nothing for equity holders.
This brings us to Temasek and its holding in Chesapeake. It must sometimes seem to Singaporeans that the management of Temasek and GIC have an unerring ability to find every banana skin in the room and promptly slip up on it. That would be amusing if it was a slapstick movie but not so entertaining when you know that these investments are financed through your taxes and lack of free education and healthcare while citizens in countries that you are helping to bail out receive theirs free. They have also been financed by the relentless rise in government debt. In his Economics Society speech PM Lee hinted this debt will have to be paid off through tax increases down the road because our overseas investments have not done as well as expected.
Actually Chesapeake does not look quite as bad as some of the other notoriously poor investments by Temasek and GIC that have been the cause of so much scorn from Singaporeans for the management of these companies. Temasek’s investment is at least in the cumulative convertible preferred stock which ranks above the common equity but carries no voting rights. The preferred stock pays a fixed dividend of 4.5% which might seem attractive in comparison to a common equity dividend yield of around 2%. However, unlike straight debt where a failure to pay the coupon would be an event of default entitling the holders to put the company into bankruptcy, the company can pass on the dividend if it does not have the cash to pay it. Missed dividends on the preferred stock accumulate and the backlog must be paid off before the company can resume paying dividends on the common shares.
So there is relatively weak protection for the preferred holders. It does have the benefit of being convertible into common stock. However the strike price for the conversion is around US$43 so at the last traded price of US$17 the equity option is quite far out of the money. Thus movements in the stock price will not have a big effect on the convertible price. This will be mainly determined by the likelihood that the company can continue paying dividends.
Temasek’s 2011 annual report says that they purchased S$700 million of the cumulative convertible preferred during the course of 2010. It traded between US$80 and US$100 over that period. Assuming they bought it around US$90, then at the last traded price of US$78.76 Temasek has ONLY lost around 12.5% of its investment (and that is before taking account of the dividends it has received since 2010).
However, even if Temasek is able to get out with only a small loss or, miracle of miracles, to break even on its investment, there are still several lessons that we should learn. It is instructive to contrast the power of shareholder democracy in shining a spotlight on management conflicts of interest and excessive compensation with our own powerlessness in finding out what is the real picture at our own sovereign wealth funds. Of course an incorruptible government ensures that there is no egregious wallowing at the corporate trough, like the shenanigans at Chesapeake, even though the PAP elite believes it is not in our interests to be told very much of what is going on. Even our (s)elected President has little power, and seemingly little interest, in keeping an eye on the investment performance of our SWFs, despite his choice of a pair of spectacles as his electoral symbol. He has still not replied to my straightforward question as to whether presidential approval was sought or given for our republic’s loan commitment to the IMF. Presumably this is because it is not in the public interest for anyone outside the ruling elite to know the answer to this question, just as Tharman said it did not serve the public interest to tell us why Chip Goodyear would not be taking up his post as CEO of Temasek.
Recently I wrote an open letter to the Finance Minister asking him to explain some apparent discrepancies between the governments’s annual Statement of Assets and Liabilities (ALS) and the reported general government surpluses. Using the IMF’s own figures as well as those kindly provided (after much prodding, to be explained in a separate post) by the Department of Statistics, I pointed out in my letter that the total reported surpluses are of the order of S$429 billion since 1980. This contrasts with my calculations from the ALS which show that real net assets (excluding land) are only some S$280 billion as of 31st March 2011.
Yet much of the valuation of the net assets is underpinned by an enormous rise in the value of unquoted investments which have gone from S$53 billion as at 31st March 2004 to S$172 billion as of 31st March 2011. Since 2008 the price of KKR stock, which is a private equity fund manager and thus a good proxy for the value of the funds it manages and has equity in, has halved from over US$20 to around US$12 today. At the same time government debt has increased to over 110% of GDP.
It might be argued that the increase in debt is merely the result of the government’s sterilization operations to mop up the liquidity stemming from our current account surplus of over 20% of GDP. However in that case why does Norway, which runs a large current account surplus of about 15% of GDP and whose sovereign wealth fund has over US$600 billion in assets, have a debt to GDP ratio of only some 50%. Saudi Arabia, which also had a current account surplus of around 24% of GDP in 2011, has a debt to GDP ratio of around 7%.
So far the Finance Minister has not deigned Singaporeans important enough to need to know the answers to these questions. An American political economist in Hong Kong, Chris Balding, has been asking the same questions, though in a much blunter manner (Americans are not used to what we feel is a need to continually abase ourselves before our servant leaders due to our fear of defamation suits, even as we agree to pay these servant leaders millions of dollars). So far there has been only a deafening silence.
The productivity of civil servants at the Ministry of Finance is clearly much poorer than those who work at MICA. There the Minister was able to use state resources to fire off a malicious and defamatory rebuttal of my letter to the WSJ within days. Past precedents, where trade restrictions were invoked by LKY against foreign newspapers and their countries took no action to protect their legitimate trade interests seem to have been enough to cow the WSJ into not printing my response.
Since I entered politics I have been consistent in calling for transparency and accountability in the management of Singapore’s reserves and in particular at our SWFs. In fact since 2009 I called for their privatization and listing on the stock market with equity to be distributed to Singapore citizens. However my proposal has not been reported in the State media which has had a permanent media blackout on me since before the GE.
Interestingly, when TJS called for the dismantling of our SWFs, which I think would be a disaster and rife with conflict of interest problems if done too quickly, his proposal was immediately picked up by the State media. Clearly the PAP elite are continuing their long-standing policy of favouring an approved Opposition, while denying the oxygen of publicity to anyone they think might pose a threat to their hegemony.
This deliberate favouritism was also seen when the former civil servants and government scholars, who moved from WP to RP and then found a more congenial home, at least for now, at NSP, asked some questions about the high levels of Temasek’s administrative expenses. In stark contrast with the lack of response to my questions, there was a swift response from Temasek that this also included the equity accounting of the expenses of group companies like SIA, PSA and others.
However the answer to this question (which should have been obvious by looking at the accounts) makes it plain that as a first stage to transparency and the privatization of our SWFs we need to separate the stakes in domestic companies from foreign investments. Temasek should be split in two. In fact if it had been a listed company in the US, for instance, management would have taken that route in order to raise shareholder value. With the split, the market is likely to value the two successor companies as a whole more highly than the original. This is because of the improved management focus and transparency resulting from the split. As a rule investors prefer to construct their own bundles of different businesses rather than have to invest in a company where management have made that choice for them.
Another reason for privatizing and listing Temasek and GIC is so that management compensation and incentives can be made transparent. Shareholders can check whether the incentives of management then are in alignment with the objective of increasing shareholder value. If there is excessive compensation for mediocre performance, then shareholders can vote against management at the AGM just as at Chesapeake. In the last resort they can vote with their feet by selling their stock which is why companies with poor corporate governance trade at a lower multiple than similar companies, ceteris paribus.
While Temasek makes much of high-sounding phrases in its discussion of its Compensation Framework in its Annual Report, it does not actually provide any details. Though it says prior year bonuses are clawed back in bad years, there does seem to be a gaping disparity between Temasek’s glowing self-description of its performance (22% p.a. annualized over two years and 17% p.a. annualized since inception) and the bigger picture as shown by the ALS. With a listing and independence from the government, we would be able to see the full compensation of all the management, including the CEO, and also demand their removal in the event of poor performance.
The shareholder revolt at Chesapeake shows us very clearly the accountability we as shareholders in Singapore Inc. have a right to expect and should be demanding from our government and the management of our SWFs. Without privatization of our SWFs and a change of government we are unlikely to get it. PM Lee has already promised us higher taxes. If we do not take action now who knows how bad the situation will be with a further five or ten years of poor investment performance. I am prepared to accept that I may be completely wrong and our investment managers are the best since Warren Buffet. However if that is the case why will the Finance Minister not answer my perfectly reasonable questions? Since he clearly will not respond to me my suggestion is that as many of you as possible write to him to urge him to answer my questions.
Minister Khaw Boon Wan has called Budget 2014 “very generous …by any measure” so naturally, I want to see how it holds up by my measure but because the budget contains information black holes and inexplicable discrepancies measuring it is almost impossible. This leads me to believe that Minister Khaw Boon Wan is singing a tune without the benefit of the sheet music. No wonder his song strikes a discord with the ordinary citizen.
First let’s remind ourselves of Budget 2013 which I analysed in an article entitled “How To Make A Surplus Disappear without Anyone Noticing”. This is what I said:
“There is an accepted format for the layout of budgets prescribed by the IMF. Last year I asked why the Budget could not be set out in the format prescribed by the IMF. In July 2012 I wrote an open letter to Christine Lagarde (see here) asking this question in more detail and that latter was published by the Huffington Post. I said there that :
The foreword to the IMF manual sets out an analytical framework for budgets and states that one of the aims of the framework is to provide an early warning system as to when things start to go wrong.”
“Specifically lacking in Budget 2013 are the figures for net interest earned and investment gains or losses on financial assets and liabilities. It also does not include a value for the state’s land holdings or for receipts from land sales.
The only information available to us is the Statement of Assets and Liabilities [of Singapore which the Finance Minister is required to publish every year]that is more than a year out of date. This barely helps us gain some picture of the true state of the government’s financial position and the size of our net assets particularly as it comes without any explanatory footnotes or an explanation as to what accounting policy is followed.
As the stocks of financial assets and liabilities are more than twelve times the flows represented by revenues and expenditures any losses in the former can easily dwarf any surpluses in the latter. We see no reason not to have full transparency, as secrecy can only be conducive to lack of accountability, even to mismanagement and potential corruption.”
I have read through this year’s Budget Speech and my first thought was, Yipee! I don’t have to do any work I can republish the piece I wrote last year. Seriously, nothing has changed and that is not a good thing. The Budget presentation continues to be a joke, using a format that does not follow the guidelines prescribed by the IMF described in the Government Financial Statistics Manual 2001.
I wonder why our Finance Minister was appointed head of a key committee of the IMF when he does not even follow IMF procedure. Presumably this has got something to do with the speed and willingness with which the PAP committed to giving away $5 billion of our money (more than 60% of the money promised to our Pioneer Generation!) without bothering with democratic niceties like Presidential or Parliamentary approval.
Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, must be pleased with the way our courts have moved so swiftly and efficiently to prevent us from challenging the legality of the government’s actions by saying we do not have locus standi.
I have been pointing out the lack of transparency and the use of smoke and mirrors in the government’s accounts since the Reform Party’s critique of Budget 2012, which was repeated with Budget 2013. I also wrote open letters to the Finance Minister asking him why the Budget was not presented in the format prescribed by the IMF. I have also written an open letter to Christine Lagarde about the discrepancies in the government’s accounts and their failure to provide a full picture of the government’s finances. In particular I highlighted the failure to provide figures for net investment income, capital receipts and revenue from land sales. This was republished in Huffington Post.
In “Where have all our reserves gone?”, “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Reserves” and “An Unappetizing Picture”, published in September 2012, I highlighted the fact that the then Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SAL) rang further alarm bells as forensic analysis suggested that the returns achieved by GIC would have had to have been much lower than the quoted returns in order to reconcile the stated figure for total net assets with Temasek’s assets and estimated revenues from land sales:
“It is only by reducing the rate of return on assets to 5.2% that one gets to a theoretical total assets level of roughly $720 billion which is close to the figure for total assets shown in the government’s SAL…
However, when one adds in Temasek’s assets and the likely revenue from land sales, returns appear to have been much worse. I calculated what would be the theoretical rate of return on assets to equal the total assets shown in the government’s balance sheet at 31 March 2011 minus Temasek assets of $180 billion and estimated revenues from land sales of $100 billion. It is only when the return on assets is reduced to a shocking 2.5% in S$ terms while keeping the rate the government pays on its debt to CPF holders at 3.5% that we are able to reconcile our theoretical calculations with what is shown in the government’s balance sheet.”
This was of course a theoretical exercise and, in the absence of any light from the Finance Minister on this black hole, the real picture could be better than laid out above or conceivably much worse. We have no way of knowing. I have not had a chance to bring my analysis up to date with this year’s SAL but I am confident my conclusions there would be unaltered.
Even if the government is barred from spending past reserves without Presidential approval, which in any case can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of Parliament, surely Parliament and the people are entitled to know the true reserve position and how well the government has performed that year in managing them. Nations like Norway, which also have substantial Sovereign Wealth funds, have adopted full transparency and present the results to their Parliament each year. We should be doing this.
This year the Finance Minister has become even braver in his determination to mislead Singaporeans as to the true state of the government’s finances. Perhaps he is emboldened by his victory in court allowing the PAP to proceed unchecked. Particularly as the Opposition in Parliament are unlikely to ask any tough questions and will certainly vote for the Budget.
So let’s look at how he misleads us this time over the disturbing question of our abnormally large surplus. The difference between the estimated surplus for 2013 of $2.4 billion, according to the PAP’s format, and the revised surplus for 2013 of nearly $4 billion announced in Budget 2014 is already embarrassingly large. That figure pales into insignificance when compared with a likely government surplus of nearly $30 billion (extrapolated from the six months’ figures shown in the Monthly Digest of Statistics for January 2014. ) And the government surplus is likely to be considerably narrower than the general government surplus, which includes the results of Temasek and other GLCs and statutory boards not under the GIC and MAS umbrella.
However I cannot say for certain what the figures are as the government has started to make it more difficult to find out what the true surplus is. This may be because many other commentators are now starting to follow my lead, albeit somewhat timidly, and point out that the surplus is vastly larger than the Finance Minister would have us believe.
The problem is that the Yearbook of Statistics used to contain details of the general government surplus in addition to the government surplus but now the format has been changed so it merely presents the surplus in the format the Finance Minister uses, which as we know not only contains no useful information but is deliberately misleading. The Statistics Department has even started restricting online access to anything but the current issue of the Monthly Digest of Statistics (MDS), which only has six months worth of data on last year’s government surplus. Back issues have disappeared. Fortunately the Finance Minister is still obliged under the Constitution to publish the annual Statement of Assets and Liabilities, though this is completely opaque as it is unaccompanied by any explanatory footnotes and is in any case a year out of date. What first world country swims against the global tide towards more openness and transparency by going backwards and trying to restrict its citizens’ access to information?
In Budget 2013 the Finance Minister used his usual trick of transferring the entire Net Investment Returns Contribution (which is meant to provide resources for current spending) straight back to the reserves by allocating most of it to Top-ups to Endowments and Trust Funds (which do not represent current spending). I wrote about this accounting trick previously in Smoke and Mirrors in the Government’s Accounts. This is what I said then:
- The setting up of funds appears to be a way of bringing the Overall Budget Balance close to zero and mirroring almost exactly the Net Investment Returns Contribution. $7 billion set aside for new funds in 2012 and $7 billion in net investment returns contributions. This is despite the fact that monies appropriated to these funds may not be spent for many years, if at all. Again this deviates from the IMF framework, which would require that these appropriations show up as part of net acquisition of financial assets. ( see http://thereformparty.net/about/press-releases/budget-2012-part-one/ and http://sonofadud.com/2012/06/14/chesapeake-energy-and-temasek-a-tale-of-two-ceos-and-shareholder-democracy/ for details of how our accounts fail to follow IMF accepted procedure)
- The $41 billion in the funds’ assets is a sum of money conveniently removed from the direct control of Parliament. In other words the Finance Minister has unfettered control over their budgets and disbursements.
- The legislation requires that these funds produce annual reports and accounts that the Finance Minister is supposed to submit to Parliament. However a preliminary inspection of Hansard uncovered no evidence that this had ever happened. [I later discovered that while some of the funds have been audited by the Auditor-General others, such as the National Productivity Fund and the Bus Services Enhancement Fund, do not even appear in the SAL. More on this soon]
- These funds appear to be a way of injecting capital into the statutory corporations (mainly Temasek, GIC and MAS) almost exactly mirroring the outflow from the Net Investment Returns Contributions (NIRCs). However I have not been able to discover any information as to how these funds are invested. In the Statement of Assets and Liabilities their assets are pooled with the rest of the government’s assets. If it is indeed the case that these monies have ended up being invested in Temasek or GIC then this would seem to violate Article 7(A) of the Financial Procedures Act.
- Finally and most seriously, if these funds are invested in Temasek or GIC, then they may be being used as a way of alleviating the stress these funds are under as a result of poor performance. In particular they ensure that cash outflow is minimal which might otherwise put pressure on the funds to sell some of their investments. If these are illiquid then there could be a considerable drop in their price. While I would hesitate before saying that there is any mismarking or overvaluation of assets we do know from the government’s own balance sheet that the performance of the sovereign wealth funds appears to have been extremely poor.
In this year’s Budget the Finance Minister pulls off the same feat by using this years NIRC to fund the whole of the Pioneer Generation Package of $8 billion. In actuality annual spending, on the Finance Minister’s own figures, is likely to only be around $400 million. If history is any guide, the PAP government will, through its customary stinginess as exhibited in the way the surplus invariably turns out to be higher than expected, likely considerably underspend the amount budgeted.
I will return shortly to discuss the other aspects of the Budget, which pale into insignificance beside the signal fact of how badly Singaporeans are being short-changed by this PAP government. I cannot understand the gushing praise that seems to have come in from many pundits and commentators from civil society and elsewhere.
If we look at the Statement of Assets and Liabilities and the MDS, government net assets have grown by some $100 billion over the three years 2010-2013. Why is that level of continued accumulation of assets necessary and why is the Finance Minister making such efforts to hide the true fiscal situation from the people, even by resorting to subterfuges that would not be permitted if Singapore’s accounts had to be audited like a corporation’s? After all the PAP often pride themselves on claiming to manage Singapore like a corporation. Yet if Singapore were Apple, for example, corporate activists would be demanding the return of a sizable portion of its cash pile to shareholders in the absence of compelling reasons from the management for keeping it. Singaporeans should be demanding answers and, if none are forthcoming, voting to change this country’s management.
Singaporeans have lived too long in completely unnecessary austerity. To cite just one example, while your government has quietly accumulated another $100 billion, you have been forced to wait in tents for medical treatment at government hospitals. These are service standards that would shame a third world country and in any advanced democracy would lead to the government being voted out. There is no justification for such penny-pinching when the stock of the government’s financial assets keeps growing. It is time we awakened to our rights as citizen shareholders and force the PAP government to either return part or all of the surplus to us or else make the case as to why they should be allowed to keep it. Are the returns they can achieve from holding on to our money so much better than we can achieve by entrusting it to private managers or investing it ourselves? Does the PAP need the money to invest in some new invention that will miraculously transform our lives? I doubt it.
Finally you may by now be able to guess my answer to Khaw Boon Wan’s contention that this is a very generous Budget. My answer is that this Budget is not only not generous, it is quite breathtaking in the audacity with which it attempts to fool Singaporeans. Singaporeans, it is your money. You may think you are a free people but so long as you work to provide cash for a government which feels no pressure to live up to basic standards of accountability and transparency then you are actually enslaved.
An Open Letter to the Minister for Finance
Mr. Tharman Shanmuguratnam
Ministry of Finance
100 High Street
#10-01 The Treasury
You recently called in the Auditor-General to audit the accounts of Aljunied- Hougang – Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) because the auditor’s reports raised serious questions about the reliability and accuracy of the town council’s financial and accounting systems. The report raised equally serious concerns over alleged discrepancies in the accounts of the former PAP-run Aljunied Town Council. At issue is the sum of 1.12 million dollars, which the former Aljunied Town Council had recorded as a receivable due from the Citizens Consultative Committees for improvement projects and whose validity has now been denied by both the Ministry for National Development (MND) and HDB.
I would remind you that the Reform Party, in its budget analysis for 2012 and 2013 and my open letters to you and to Christine Lagarde, has repeatedly raised serious questions about discrepancies and missing information in the way you present the Budget and the picture therein of the government’s finances. In particular the Statement of Assets and Liabilities does not match with the total returns that Temasek and GRC claim to have earned since inception and the revenues earned from the sale of land.
We have repeatedly asked you for an explanation for these discrepancies and to supply the missing information. I therefore have great sympathy with my colleagues in the Workers Party who say that they have been unable to get data from government bodies for an item in the accounts run by the former PAP town council.
My experience has also been that lack of transparency and freedom of information makes obtaining critical data an impossibility.
May I remind you that the Auditor-General’s report for the financial year 2011/2012 given to the President and publicly available since July 2012 contained an item under the heading Ministry of Finance, “Presidents concurrence not obtained for promissory note issued.”
In short your Ministry had been found to have breached the Constitution and unlawfully granted a loan using taxpayers’ money to the International Development Association, the soft lending arm of the World Bank without obtaining the President’s approval as required under Article 144. The promissory note had to be returned and reissued in order for your Ministry to comply with the law. We were not informed what had happened to the monies the IDA had already drawn down. A junior civil servant was blamed and your ministry promised to put new procedures in place. I would ask you to let our taxpayers know what those new procedures and checks and balances are so that we can have confidence that the controls in your Ministry are sufficiently robust, reliable and accurate.
I believe your recent address to Parliament on 21 January 2014 when introducing a motion for increasing Singapore’s capital contribution to the IBRD (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) raises further cause for concern over the reliability of your Ministry’s accounting treatments.
In Parliament you describe an accounting treatment for the above IBRD capital contribution which if correct renders the treatment that you argued in court last year, applied to Singapore’s loan commitment to the IMF false. (in Civil Appeal No. 154 of 2012 (Jeyaretnam Kenneth Andrew.)
In court I argued that the IMF loan commitment was a liability and therefore caught by Article 144(1) of the Constitution and you argued at that time, that it was an asset and therefore not caught by 144(1). The judges accepted your version that it was an asset and therefore 144(1) did not apply and I lost my case.
I am writing to you to ask you to explain how you could now give a description in Parliament for a similar scenario, where Singapore is agreeing to provide callable capital to the IBRD on demand, explaining that this represents a liability not an asset.
The two bilateral pledge agreements are in fact very similar structures and therefore you cannot at the same time argue that one is accounted for as an asset and the other as a liability.
If I may refresh your memory the Hansard record for the IBRD motion records you as stating:
“The remaining 94% (of Singapore’s subscription), known as callable capital, will not be drawn by the IBRD except in extreme circumstances, when it cannot meet its obligations on borrowings or guarantees. To date, the IBRD has never had to call on the callable capital. It is an AAA-rated institution with a sound balance sheet for over 50 years. Nevertheless, the full increase in Singapore’s subscription to IBRD’s capital will be charged to the Consolidated Fund, as the callable capital represents an increase in the Government’s financial liabilities. “
I thank you for pointing out to our people that no matter what impeccable history a AAA rated institution has, there can be no categorical case for stating that the callable capital will NOT be in fact called upon. In fact as you will be aware supranational financial institutions, such as the IBRD and the IMF, are awarded their AAA rating and quasi-sovereign status precisely because their member countries, including Singapore, guarantee to bail them out.
I refer you instead to the sentence in italics in which you agree with my previous arguments that a callable capital subscription of this nature represents an increase in the financial liabilities of the Government. In lay terms callable capital is callable- however unlikely- and therefore must be written down in our balance sheets in the Liabilities column not the Assets column.
At the time when it is finally called upon it then swops sides and becomes an asset though you have chosen to write down its value to zero. We are agreed on this – that an actual loan or called upon capital commitment must be listed as an asset. Our subscriptions to the IBRD give Singapore voting rights and allow us to influence policy and thus qualify as assets. I agree that until such time as our commitment is called upon it should be defined as a liability.
This is in fact exactly what I argued in court re the IMF. You argued the opposite.
Your different explanations on two separate occasions now make you vulnerable to accusations of contradicting yourself or even knowingly misleading the court by presenting two opposing descriptions for the same thing. The only way you can avoid such accusations would be to argue that a loan commitment to the IMF is qualitatively different from a callable capital subscription to the IBRD. However nonsensical that argument would be.
Nonsensical maybe but it does not surprise me that Hansard shows that in the very next sentence you do indeed bravely attempt to defend the indefensible, namely to argue a distinction between the callable capital of the IBRD and that of the IMF. You do this by saying the IBRD subscriptions are ‘unlike’ our loan commitments to the IMF. It is deeply significant that this reference to the IMF loan commitment is missing from your Ministry’s Press release. And it can only be found by scrutinizing Hansard. Presumably you would not wish to widely publicize this explanation, not only because it is bunkum but also because it contradicts your previous statements in court and in Parliament.
Let us look at your exact words to Parliament and our people:
“Our subscriptions to the IBRD are hence unlike MAS’ subscriptions to the IMF’s capital, or what is called the “IMF quota subscriptions”, or its loans to the IMF, which are neither expenditures nor liabilities, but assets that remain part of our Official Foreign Reserves.”
In fact Minister you are being economical with the truth and attempting to mislead the people by lumping the commitment to make a loan to the IMF with the loan itself or with an increase in Singapore’s capital subscriptions to the IMF. Here are the three descriptions that you use to describe financial resources provided to the IMF that you run together in the above sentence:
1.”MAS’s subscriptions to the IMF’s capital”
2. “IMF quota subscriptions”
3. “Loans to the IMF.”
No. 1 is a contingent liability until it is called then it becomes an asset.
No. 2 is a different way of describing No. 1
Once they are made, actual loans to the IMF (No. 3) are treated for accounting purposes as assets (though in line with US Budget practice a reserve should be taken against the risk of loss and the fact that they may never be repaid) but so long as the IMF loan commitment remains undrawn it represents a contingent liability for the government, whether when it is drawn it represents a loan or becomes an increase in Singapore’s capital subscription to the IMF.
This can be further demonstrated by examining your answer to a Parliamentary question on 12 May 2012:
“5 These are however temporary resources, provided to the IMF in advance of the expected increase in its permanent capital subscriptions (or quota subscriptions) that will be decided in early 2014. Participating in the current round of bilateral contributions to the IMF will in effect bring forward part or all of Singapore’s likely share of the increase in the IMF’s capital base in 2014. [my italics]
6 Singapore’s US$4 billion contingent line of credit to the IMF means that Singapore is expected to lend the funds when the IMF considers necessary.”
Your argument in court that the IMF loan commitment is an asset is furthermore contradicted by MAS’s own accounts for 2012-13. The accounts show our republic’s obligations to the IMF under Commitments, which includes other contingent liabilities such as capital expenditures, leases and a guarantee to Singapore Deposit Insurance Corporation in the amount of $20 billion.
Even you must be aware that a commitment to lend money to the IMF carries risks, however negligible you want the people of Singapore to think these are.
As the Finance Minister and head of the International Financial and Monetary Committee of the IMF, who regularly meets with the US Treasury Secretary, you will know that the US treats commitments to the IMF as contingent liabilities requiring approval by Congress (see here). Furthermore as required under the US Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990 loans made by the US Government are scored to reflect the degree of subsidy or risk of loss. In 2009 the US Congress appropriated US$5 billion to cover the risk of loss on the US commitment to the IMF.
Would you not agree that the government should establish a similar reserve in respect both of our subscriptions (whether called or not) and our loans (whether made or commitments)?
If the IMF loan commitment increases the financial liabilities of the Government (including within the Government the assets and liabilities of the MAS as defined by Article 142 of the Constitution) then you have clearly breached Article 144(1). This follows from former AG Chan Sek Kheong’s opinion in 1998 that “transactions captured by Article 144(1) are those that, logically, increase the financial liability of the Government.”
There can therefore be no doubt that our loan commitment to the IMF should have received Parliamentary and Presidential approval. It further follows that by representing a liability as an asset to the Appeal Court you led the Court to rule that it was an asset and to dismiss my appeal.
Whilst you may use sophistry and a constitution re-written by the PAP government to be so vague as to be unfit for purpose and hoodwink our people – it will not pass on a global stage. Already our republic’s banking secrecy laws are bringing us under increasing pressure to comply with global money laundering regulations. We have become known as a haven for dirty money. Our love of accepting ultra rich individuals and large institutions that take advantage of our low tax regime and preferential treatment for non-citizens is also under fire.
As the budget is due to be presented tomorrow, I would hope recent events will persuade you to set out Budget 2014 in an internationally accepted and transparent format as prescribed by IMF and not the deceptive and incomplete format that your Ministry presented in 2013 and in previous years.
Being curious as to why a foreigner would be so interested in MAS’s performance, I checked out his website. He appears to have no economic credentials other than a background in US military intelligence. Yet he has apparently managed to create a successful business out of peddling fear to the gullible and helping the rich evade tax or the elite from third world countries acquire residency or stash their ill-gotten gains in the West. His articles contain very few hard statistics and no economic analysis. Instead they are peppered with phrases like “monetary madness”, “hyperinflation” and “the coming economic collapse”. The author even rails against gun control. Indeed it is easy to see why you might need your own arsenal of subatomic weaponry if, as Black says, the apocalypse is just around the corner. In essence its just high pressure sales and the same scare tactics are used to sell homeopathic remedies against cancer or other diseases. For a few dollars a month you can subscribe to the basic newsletter. For a whole lot more he promises to give you the names and contact details of people who can help you set up secret bank accounts or trusts without bothering with legalities like money laundering checks or provide second or third passports with no questions asked.
Black also acts as promoter and salesman for the global gloom-and-doom school of investment gurus. For the very reasonable sum of US$1,000 you can download a video to hear pundits like Jim Rogers (who moved to Singapore a few years back), Jim Rickards, Ron Paul (the former Congressman and well-known libertarian), Paul Schiff and Nigel Farage (leader of the UK Independence Party who seems an odd bedfellow) give their insights at a conference in Santiago, Chile, into the future. High on the agenda is how to protect your assets from greedy governments intent on confiscation, improvident central bankers determined to debase the currency, supranational organisations like the EU determined to impose dictatorial rule and a lazy Western populace hooked on welfare. All these individuals cater to what an Asian audience wants to hear, predicting the fall of the West, the rise of Asia and the bankruptcy of the US under a mountain of debt.
What these pundits including Black all have in common is that they are adherents to the Austrian school of economics of which Hayek was the best-known exponent. While I am no fan of socialism, I take exception to a major Hayekian premise, which is that economies left to themselves are inherently self-regulating without the need for government intervention. In particular Hayekians believe that governments should never run deficits and that currencies should be freely convertible into gold. The Great Depression of the 1930s should have finished off these zombies. However, despite all the empirical evidence demonstrating the very real harm such policies have done and continue to do to the economy wherever they are practised, the zombies have come to life again after the financial crisis of 2008 should have administered the coup de grace. They have captured the Republican Party in the US and influenced a lot of the policies of the UK Coalition Government, with detrimental effects on the economy.
Another notable characteristic of these professed libertarians is their willingness to get into bed with rather nasty authoritarian or even communist states if they can benefit from a lower tax rate. Jim Rogers is based in Singapore and is always singing its praises along with China’s. Yet perhaps if they had to do National Service or live in government-owned housing or have their property acquired for a pittance or have to pay enormous damages in defamation suits for saying things that they regularly say about their own countries’ leaders , they would not be so fulsome in their praises. They clearly are blind to the reality of a state capitalist economic model where most domestic enterprises are ultimately controlled by the government. So their libertarianism is not genuine but just self-interested cant.
Once we understand where Black is coming from we can see why he is writing about MAS’s losses. He is not criticising MAS since he praises Singapore as an “ultra-healthy” economy. Rather he is hitting out at Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve for debasing the US$. to gain a trade advantage. MAS’s losses are only a peg to hang his constant theme of coming monetary collapse, hyperinflation and the breakdown of civilisation. It is immaterial whether Black believes in his ravings or has any evidence to back up his contentions. He is just a good salesman who could be selling anything from health products to time-shares to guns. Spreading fear boosts sales of his newsletters, briefings and videos, money from which undoubtedly lets him live a luxurious lifestyle.
It is also what his presumed audience in the BRICs and other developing countries wants to hear. Attacking the US for quantitative easing also puts him on the side of governments like China, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and Singapore, which manipulate their currencies to get a competitive advantage. Naturally the governments of these countries are apoplectic with fury that the US, through quantitative easing, is playing the same game and making their exports more expensive in the US market.
While Black draws attention to last year’s MAS loss his rushed and superficial analysis obviously had no time to look back at earlier years. MAS has been making losses for some time as it accumulates foreign currency reserves that become worth progressively less and less when converted back into appreciating Singapore dollars. The total income (losses) for the years 2009 to 2013 are given below:
2009 S$ (7.4) billion
2010 S$ 9.4 billion
2011 S$(10.0) billion
2012 S$ 3.3 billion
2013 S$(10.0) billion
Since 2009 MAS has lost a cumulative total of S$ 14.7 billion. In 2009 it lost $7.4 billion, which prompted the government to bolster its capital through an injection of nearly $17 billion in fresh equity. I pointed this out in my submission to the Court of Appeal over the constitutionality of to show that MAS could not be considered an independent entity as the AG tried to argue. MAS’s losses should not be considered in isolation. GIC also appears to have only made around 2.5% p.a. when measured in S$ over the period 1980-2011, a shockingly low return given its access to cheap leverage in the form of forced lending from Singaporeans’ CPF funds (see links to series of articles on www.sonofadud.com below).
Black may blame these losses on the fiat currency system and what he calls “Ben Bernanke’s journey into monetary madness over the last several years”. This obliges “healthy nations like Singapore…to lose billions”. But the blame should really attach to the PAP government’s perverse and outmoded economic policies, it is much more unhealthy for Singapore to run a current account surplus of 20 to 25% of GDP than it is for the US to run a relatively modest current account deficit of about 3% of GDP currently. This huge surplus represents foregone consumption (in 2012 private consumption expenditure was only 36% of GDP). Furthermore it is a direct consequence of the PAP government’s enormous budget surpluses. Singaporeans lose out because depending on the leakage to imports we could probably raise consumption expenditures by at least 50% and still have current account balance or a small surplus. Clearly the current level of surplus is unsustainable in the long run and the resultant economic austerity has no longer any justification.
This chronic current account surplus puts continuous upward pressure on the Singapore dollar and forces MAS has to lose billions by accumulating depreciating foreign exchange reserves. Though capital account flows (presumably GIC and Temasek’s overseas investments) partially offset the current account surplus this is not enough to prevent a big increase in reserves of nearly 10% of GDP that is the result of MAS intervention.
One solution would be for the MAS were to stop intervening in the foreign exchange markets. The S$ would then appreciate to the point where exports become sufficiently uncompetitive and imports sufficiently attractive to bring the current and capital accounts into balance. However this would be likely to have adverse consequences for output and employment in Singapore. Counterbalancing this would be the higher real incomes of consumers as imports became cheaper. On the positive side it might hasten the restructuring of the economy away from low productivity industries dependent on foreign labour. However foreign labour may be more willing to accept nominal wage cuts because foreign workers have a real income target expressed in their home currency. This could lead local employers to substitute even more foreign labour in place of Singaporeans. This would obviously be an undesirable consequence. Another adverse consequence is that this would impose even greater valuation losses on the portfolios of our Sovereign Wealth Funds which must dwarf MAS’s already substantial losses.
A better solution would be to consume more and save less. Singapore’s consumption of 36% of GDP contrasts sharply with the US where it amounts to 70% of GDP. It is difficult to believe that investment returns in Singapore are so much higher than in the US to justify this disparity.
This underconsumption and overinvestment is driven by the PAP government’s desire to continue accumulating overseas assets. This has got to the point where relatively small movements in the value of the stock of government financial assets dwarf changes in GDP. The result is the situation where MAS’s loss last year swallowed up almost the whole of GDP growth. The government is turning Singapore into a gigantic investment fund with a small operating company (the economy) attached! It deliberately prevents us from finding out how the managers of our money are doing but all indications are they are performing poorly. Secrecy has historically been highly correlated with fraud and mismanagement.
To illustrate how the additions to the stock of investment assets now dwarf movements in GDP, the government ran a huge surplus of $36 billion in 2012 or over 10% of GDP according to the past issues of the Monthly Digest of Statistics. This was just the government surplus whereas a wider measure known as the general government surplus and published annually until very recently in the Yearbook of Statistics has traditionally been much bigger. (The Yearbook has now changed its format to the same as the Budget presentation and this suggests that the PAP government is worried that it has been providing too much information to critical analysts like myself. ) Including the net incurrence of liabilities, which represents the increase in government debt through the growth in CPF funds, the government took in around 20% of GDP from the corporate and household sectors. Coincidentally or not, this almost exactly mirrors the current account balance.
My preferred solution would be to invest more in infrastructure, spend more on health and education, improve social safety nets and cut taxes. The government could thus reduce the current account surplus and relieve the upward pressure on the S$. Singaporeans would also enjoy a higher standard of living. As an added by-product we would be good global citizens, contributing our own small bit to rebalancing the world economy.
However that is unlikely to happen as long as the government continues to pursue insane economic objectives (see the link to my last article below). The government’s rationale is that we need to continue saving for a rainy day. When currency appreciation wipes out most of the investment returns that our Sovereign Wealth Funds are able to generate that argument becomes increasingly absurd. It snake oil salesman SImon Black and the group of professed libertarian pundits whose half-baked economic analysis and doom-mongering he peddles, should push a country which does not believe in freedom, pursues insane economic policies and gives its own citizens such a raw deal!
The recent flare-up of the Indonesian forest fire problem and the deterioration in our air quality is understandably also causing temperatures to rise in Singapore. Our neighbor Malaysia is also equally if not more severely affected. This happens year after year causing severe respiratory problems for those afflicted with asthma, forcing schools to cancel outdoor activities and keeping people inside. Yet what is notable is that our government seems unable to come up with any solutions despite the fact that this has been going on since 1997. In particular they do not seem capable of applying some simple lessons from economics.
Economics teaches us that pollution is an example of a negative externality. A negative externality occurs when a third party has to bear the costs or negative impact of the production of another party. An example within Singapore would be congestion on the roads. As the roads become congested due to the increasing number of private cars, public transport users and non-car owners have to bear the negative costs in terms of longer and slower journeys, pollution, noise and congestion.
A positive externality is when the third party benefits from the action or production of others. Those who choose to forgo the comfort of a car are benefiting others. Growing plants for our own pleasure or use on our balconies ( so long as we guard against mosquitoes) actually benefits the whole environment not just us. A government that invests in education produces a host of positive externalities.
In the case of the haze from Indonesia the negative costs are primarily the additional health expenditures required to treat the problem as well as any economic losses arising from people having to take days off work. There is also the damage to the tourist industry, both short and long term. There is also the possible long term damage to health resulting from the pollution. This damage is all capable of being quantified yet it does not seem to have occurred to the government to do so. I would confidently estimate that the costs run into billions of dollars.
Now Iam going to bring in some theory. A government familiar with the Coase theorem (named after Ronald Coase who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991) could have gained some insights here. Problems with externalities can be viewed as problems of the distribution of property rights. The right to pollute can be viewed as a property right as can the right to clean air. Now, in an efficient market without transaction costs this property right should go to the highest bidder, i.e. the party to whom that right is worth most.
Is there any way to stop this menace? Well, the economic loss if not the misery could be solved by the Indonesian companies involved paying Singaporeans for the additional health and other costs that we incur as a result of the pollution. However Indonesia as a sovereign state feels no necessity to compensate Singaporeans and Malaysians for the costs incurred. Disappointingly ASEAN has set up no legal mechanism for dispute resolution of this kind and the awarding of compensation for damage suffered from externalities that cross national borders. It shouldn’t surprise us that the PAP government appears unable or unwilling year in year out, to do anything beyond telling their Indonesian counterparts that the situation is serious. It shows how ineffectual ASEAN is. So penalizing Indonesia or fining them clearly isn’t workable given the current framework.
I have a much better idea based on The Coase theorem. Rather than seeking damages for the costs of the pollution we should just pay Indonesia for our clean air. Singapore could pay the Indonesian farmers and plantation owners responsible for the haze to use other methods to clear their land. We are a wealthy Nation and because we lose billions of dollars to this haze every year, this right (the right to clean air) is worth a lot of money to us.
Lacking an international legal framework to award and enforce compensation claims, Singapore and Malaysia should offer the Indonesian government a sum sufficient to compensate the farmers and plantation companies for the additional costs incurred by switching to another method but obviously less than the value to us of having clean air. The problem is that the prospect of financial payments is likely at the margin to induce new companies to enter the “industry” of slash-and-burn clearance just to receive compensation. For example if I pay my neighbours on the left to stop growing flowers in their garden because I have hay fever then the neighbours on the right would immediately start planting flowers to get me to pay them to stop.
Therefore it would be better if the compensation took the form of a lump sum payment to the Indonesian government to be given to those responsible coupled with a continuing payment towards the costs of rigorous enforcement of a total ban on such methods. This cannot be too difficult given rapid developments in drone technology to allow intensive monitoring of large areas. Singapore could also contribute towards the development of low cost but less environmentally harmful methods of land clearance.
Objections have been raised, particularly by Indonesia, that a large part of the pollution is produced by plantation companies listed in Malaysia and Singapore. We are able to raise a levy on these companies sited on our homeland. Perhaps part of the costs of compensating Indonesia can even be defrayed by levies on these companies. They are unlikely to be able or willing to escape the levy by relocating elsewhere.
So, I offer a simple solution. I am sure there are many other suggestions. The real question is why our government has done nothing about it for the last fifteen years. As always I am convinced that they have no long term plan or model capable or reacting to evolving situations. I have many times said that their plan is a super tanker set on course. They can calibrate it slightly on route from A to B but super tankers are notoriously difficult when it comes to turning a circle or changing direction. The one child policy is a perfect example of a PAP super tanker route. Population rates are particularly difficult to change and once affected almost impossible to put into reverse. Another example is the PAP economic model of growth essentially based on low cost labour which is now increasingly obsolete in the face of disruptive technologies like advanced robotics, 3D printing and automation of knowledge work.
The PAP ministers cocooned in their million dollar salaries are largely indifferent to our health and well being or are simply incapable of coming up with positive policies. Let us return to those negative externalities. I often berate Singaporeans for being prepared to put up with conditions of austerity that citizens of advanced democracies and economies would never tolerate. Maybe it would be more obvious if we were to look at what I call austerity as a negative externality.
Let’s turn this on its head. If the PAP was a farmer burning and causing haze the negative externality it produced would be obvious to you. It is not a factory of course but citizens as the innocent third party are forced to bear the negative costs of the PAP policy of unnecessary savings. Savings far beyond any level that would be considered necessary for a reserve fund, as a buffer against a rainy day. The negative externally is borne by you as over a 50 year period the PAP wilfully under spends and under invests in its citizens’ education and health. This causes me to ask once again, who do our huge reserves (even taking into account the discrepancies I have highlighted before) actually benefit? And do our people vote for the PAP believing that bearing the negative externalities is a good way of existing or have they simply had the wool pulled over their eyes?
Finally I will compare Temasek Holdings with Norway’s sovereign wealth fund. As you know I often bring up Norway’s SWF as a model of good governance and a model of transparency. Bearing in mind that Norwegians of course enjoy a full welfare state although this is not something I would advocate for Singapore. A couple of years ago Norway’s SWF made a major policy shift. They decided to invest a significant part of their funds into environmentally responsible companies. Norway’s Ambassador speaking at the time said the investment strategy was “just the start” of her country’s use of state – backed financial mechanisms to halt environmental degradations. Meanwhile Temasek is using state finance to invest in plantation companies. In 2005 it acquired CDC group’s plantation interests in Indonesia including Sumatra in partnership with Cargill. So ironically if we do pay for our clean air we could be paying our own government for the right to clean air.
Benedict Chong, I don’t know if that’s his real name, has responded to my recent piece about wanting to give Singaporeans a stake in the wealth of our country. I reproduce it here as a separate article. He makes many interesting points and it is well worth reading. Please feel free to comment on it.
With regards to your article on the privatisation of both Temasek and GIC, I note certain solutions and process that you (KJ) are suggesting the Singapore government implement in order to “create a true property owning democracy”. While I like the idealism of such an idea, I am afraid that practically, it is unrealistic. And I give you the reasons below.
I will of course, focus on the answers to the questions you broached and add a few of my own.
The figure you give shows that every citizen would have a claim of up to $100,000. While this figure itself is disputable and extremely subjective, as you have stated yourself, let me bring your attention to the crux of the issue. Will the issuance of such a huge and nominally equal sum of money to every citizen in the country really make the lives of the general population better? Based on comparative analysis, the relative wealth of citizens in the country will remain equal. There is no net benefit between me and my neighbour since we are both receiving the same amount. On a ceteris paribus assumption, I would be no better off.
The injection or rather, distribution of such a huge amount of shares to the public will also result in the need to increase the monetary base/supply of SGD substantially. I assume that cumulatively, GIC and Temasek as a whole will be worth around 500 billion SGD. The distribution without payment of such shares will result in sudden inflows of apparent “wealth” that increases the total market capitalisation of SGX listed companies by up to 55%. But the money to purchase or even sell such shares has to come from somewhere. This will lead to two possibilities; inflation as money “earned” from sale of distributed shares are pumped into the economy or plunging prices as supply of such shares outstrip demand for it, making those who sold their holdings first more advantaged (so much for democracy) since transactions are carried out on basis of price and first come first serve.
Your comment on the government no longer required to make budget surpluses or even balance the budget is perhaps extremely irresponsible. There is little need for me to point to the problems in Eurozone countries as well as USA as evidentiary support for my stand. In addition, your comment on the government investing possible surpluses into SWFs also brings a moral issue to the table.
Whether you like it or not, government money in any entity means that that particular institution has been given an unquantifiable asset of implicit sovereign guarantee. In this case, will the SWFs be considered private corporations or mere Government Sponsored Enterprises? GSEs have shown throughout history to be less than prudent in their finances, regardless of whether they are publicly traded or not. So much for transparency that comes with a stock listing..
The other questions that you are merely scratch the surface. I would like to pose a few of my own questions which I hope you can answer.
1) What happens if those former SWFs meet insolvency issues in the future? Should the government backstop them or let them fail, keeping note of their huge presence in the markets?
2) Is the securities market in Singapore liquid enough to sustain such a listing?
3) Will the government regulate the company or allow is to determine its own risk profile?
4) Who will lead the former SWFs? A government appointee or member of the general public?
5) Should the incumbent government issue a set of guidance, directives or risk parameters to the company?