Category Archives: Budget
Author’s note: This is an edited version of article I originally wrote for TOC which has not been published on my blog before today. Reading this article I surprised even myself, to see that back in 2009 I had already exposed the link between GIC’s funding and Temasek. You’ll read in the article where I say, “However a significant portion of its funding may come indirectly from the CPF which invests primarily in debt issued by MOF.”
If I wrote this today I wouldn’t put in the word “may“. That is because since 2009 GIC has confirmed what I wrote that in fact GIC’s funding comes from CPF. They say so here, “GIC, along with MAS, manages the proceeds from the Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGS) that are issued and guaranteed by the government which CPF board has invested in with the CPF monies”. I have also updated the level of assets of GIC. These are really the only parts of the article that need updating.
Everything else is as true today, so maybe back in 2009 Singaporeans just weren’t ready for the message. Fast forward to the last two years or so and thanks to the dedicated blogging and brave public rallies of Han Hui Hui and Roy Ngerng who started blogging on this in 2012, my central ideas as to transparency and how our wealth is invested have become popularised and a hot button issue. No doubt CPF will be at the forefront of every Opposition Party’s manifesto next GE.
My view on investments is that an extra 1% or 2 % return is a red herring. Investment in our only natural resource, our people, could potentially have a much higher internal rate of return, in the form of a more highly educated workforce, than that achieved by Temasek or GIC on their overseas investments.
What is a Sovereign Wealth Fund?
Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) are not a new idea. According to Wikipedia, the term Sovereign Wealth Fund was first used by Andrew Rozanov in an article entitled, ‘Who holds the wealth of nations?’ in the Central Banking Journal of May 2005. A SWF may be defined as a state-owned investment fund composed of financial assets such as stocks, bonds, property, precious metals or other financial instruments.
Two types of SWFs.
1. The first, and the oldest form of SWF, is one set up to manage revenues from an exhaustible resource such as oil, or one which derives its assets from government budget surpluses.
One example of this type and possibly the oldest known is the Kuwait Investment Authority, a commodity SWF created in 1953 from oil revenues.
A more recent example of this type is the Norwegian SWF which was set up primarily to ensure that the wealth represented by Norway’s oil reserves was not squandered on current consumption but turned into financial assets which would benefit future generations.
The example we are interested in is Temasek. It was set up in 1974 to hold stakes in the various government-controlled companies, such as DBS, SIA and Singapore Technologies, that had previously been held by the Ministry of Finance. The Temasek Holdings website states that, “Our investments are funded through dividends we receive from our portfolio companies, our divestment proceeds, commercial borrowings, a maiden Yankee bond issue in 2005 and occasional asset injections from our shareholder, the Minister for Finance (Incorporated).”
2. The second type of SWF is one set up to manage a country’s excess foreign exchange reserves. GIC is probably an example of this type of SWF since it was set up in 1981 with the explicit objective of managing our foreign exchange reserves for long-term capital appreciation. I say probably, as there is very little transparency, so it is not clear whether it is also funded by capital injections from the Ministry of Finance in the same manner as Temasek. However a significant portion of its funding may come indirectly from the CPF which invests primarily in debt issued by MOF. ( see my note that this information is now updated) No information is available on the current level of assets. The website states only that the investment portfolio is in excess of US$100 billion. However various estimates have put the level of assets at between US$250 and US$330 billion. (Author’s note: I know now from the Statement of Assets and Liabilities that the Finance Minister has to include with the Budget (though I have not been able to access it this year) that the global total of financial assets owned by the Government is about $800 billion. Subtracting Temasek’s assets ($223 billion in 2014) and the Government’s deposits with MAS ($113 billion in 2014) from this leaves a figure for GIC’s assets of about $460 billion. However in the absence of even minimum levels of transparency this is still guesswork and could be completely wrong.)
Does Singapore even need a Sovereign Wealth Fund?
Singaporeans need to ask, particularly in the light of the recent investment losses, why Singapore even has a SWF let alone two.
Look at my definition for the first type and you will see that Singapore does not meet the criteria since we do not need to manage a windfall from any natural resources. If Singapore had expanded its domestic investment and consumption over the last 30 years it would have had smaller current account surpluses and thus smaller foreign exchange reserves needing management. MAS already has sufficient foreign exchange reserves necessary to manage the Singapore dollar. No second SWF was needed to fulfil this function.
Again without transparency we have no breakdown of how much government saving in the form of surpluses has contributed to both Temasek and GIC’s growth over the years. But we do know that the cumulative budget surplus over the last thirty years has been considerable.
Where have these budget surpluses come from in the first place. Well we all know how to save money. We cut back on expenditures. When a country cuts back on the absolute basics such as free education for its children then it creates a budget surplus. Let’s make no mistake here. No other First World Nation only has compulsory education up to the end of Primary school and even that only for a very short day. Even our very minimal compulsory education is not even free (although heavily subsidised). I am not advocating a full welfare state but to put it bluntly, Singaporeans have helped to pay for our enormous overseas investments by going without the brights and benefits that citizens in a democracy demand. So Singaporeans go without free universal education to secondary level, a national health insurance system and other elements of a social safety net which are characteristic of most countries at Singapore’s level of development. By making you go without the PAP builds up a huge surplus for investment overseas.
How the budget surplus should be invested: In Singaporeans
SO, the budget surplus, has been taken from the pockets of Singaporeans and represents money that you not only could have but should have. It could and should, be returned to the citizens of Singapore in the form of lower taxes, fees and charges. It could have also been used to finance much higher domestic investment in education or in health and welfare.
Their website states that Temasek has achieved an annualized return of 18% since inception though that is based on the March 2008 asset figure of S$185 billion rather than on the current valuation of S$145 billion announced by CEO Ho Ching yesterday. Investment in our only natural resource, our people, could potentially have had a much higher internal rate of return, in the form of a more highly educated workforce, than that achieved by Temasek or GIC on their overseas investments.
Instead of the Government investing our money to pick winners through an industrial strategy there could have been greater incentives for investment and R&D in the private sector which might have led to faster productivity growth and higher levels of real incomes. And even if GIC has not been funded directly by the MOF, the growth of our foreign exchange reserves has come about through chronic external surpluses which represent domestic under-consumption and under-investment.
As a final insult, CEO Ho Ching announced on July 29th 2009 at the Institute of Policy Studies that Temasek was thinking of allowing Singaporeans to co-invest alongside Temasek sometime in the next ten years. How kind of her. I thought we had already invested as outlined above. The only positive side of this news is that it would presumably force Temasek to be much more transparent about its investment process and corporate governance. In any case any personal financial adviser would not advise an investment in a company without sufficient transparency that required due diligence.
The next step: issue shares to Singaporeans
As we all know, calls on the government for accountability and transparency in its sovereign wealth funds is not new. However; I would go one step further! Many of you know that I gave a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Association lunch on the 2 July 2009. In answer to a question put to me after the lunch I went on record as saying that Singaporeans should be given a direct stake in our SWFs. One way to do this is through the privatization and listing of Temasek and the issuance of shares to Singapore citizens. Another way is through the explicit linkage of part of the value of these assets to the welfare of Singaporeans, as is done in Norway through the Pension Fund.
To counter one possible objection that our national “crown jewels” could end up being bought by foreigners the government could retain a golden share which would prevent this happening to Temasek’s portfolio of domestic GLCs. Longer term there is no reason for Singapore to continue to run large budget surpluses over the course of an economic cycle.
In conclusion whilst I will not stop any time soon on calling on our government for greater transparency and accountability into how it manages our money, I would urge us to look at credible new proposals such as mine.
The Budget Statement is only a few hours away. The Government-controlled and-owned media is full of speculation about the “goodies” that Singaporeans can look forward to. The Straits Times estimates that Government surpluses since 2011 have totalled $10-12 billion though it doubts that all or even most of this sum will be spent. Predictions for the use of all or part of this money include enhanced support for seniors, an SG50 bonus payout across the board, an extension of the Productivity and Innovation Credit (though even the Government media admit it has not worked) and tax reliefs rather than tax rebates.
Reform Party has since 2009 argued that the Government’s Budget presentation is deeply misleading and presents a wildly inaccurate picture of the resources available for extra spending or tax cuts. We begin by looking at the potential resources available and following the Norwegian model suggest that a fixed percentage of the total value of assets under management be made available for current spending. We then build on our previous proposals as to where the additional money should be allocated.
Government Resources and the Medium Term Spending Framework
The $10-12 billion total surpluses given by the ST are based on the format given in the Budget presentation, which excludes returns on reserves accumulated before the current Parliament. However we see no justification for this exclusion even if current legislation prohibits spending out of past reserves without the President’s approval. This is a basic lack of transparency and accountability which the PAP have never addressed.
In order to gain a true picture of the Government’s finances, we need to use the IMF framework, which includes interest and investment income on past reserves as well as realised capital gains on assets sold. This can be found tucked away in the Monthly and Yearly Digest of Statistics. Surprisingly no one in Parliament has mentioned this. In our response to Budget 2012, Reform Party set out the IMF framework for the Budget and demanded to know why the PAP do not follow this method
This is the table of accumulated surpluses on the IMF framework since 1999:
Using the IMF framework, which presents a much more accurate picture of the Government’s finances, we have accumulated about $258 billion in surpluses since 1999. If these were handed out to Singapore citizens we would all be approximately $80,000 richer. The real surplus over the last few years has been of the order of $30-40 billion per annum though we are missing the figures for 2013 and 2014. These figures include the returns of the Sovereign Wealth Funds run by Temasek and GIC, as well as the reserves managed by MAS and the revenue from land sales.
Reform believes that these surpluses belong to the people and are the fruit of many years of austerity during which our citizens have been forced by the PAP to go without many of the basic benefits that citizens of other rich countries enjoy, such as free education, health care, a state old age pension, and help for families with children and the disabled. We have proposed the drastic but simple solution of returning control over these accumulated surpluses by privatizing Temasek and GIC and distributing shares to Singaporeans. This was part of our Election Manifesto in 2011.
However this may be impractical in the short term. Therefore drawing on the Norwegian model we propose that every year a certain percentage of the assets managed by Temasek and GIC be added to current spending. Norway has one of the world’s biggest Sovereign Wealth Funds, the Norwegian Pension Fund, which was set up to manage revenues from its oil wealth not extracted through mindless austerity from its citizens as in the Singapore model. In Norway this is currently 4% of total assets, which represents a target real rate of return after inflation.
Every year the Government is required to produce a Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SAL) which is unfortunately two years out of date. According to the last published SAL for the year ended 31st March 2013 (which has mysteriously disappeared from the Budget website) total assets amounted to about $800 billion. However many of the assets managed by GIC are matched by liabilities to CPF holders so the net assets amount to roughly $360 billion. However it is not clear whether this includes Temasek’s $223 billion of assets. GIC should be able to make more than the assumed average 3.5% the Government pays on CPF balances but conservatively we assume that 4% of net assets can safely be spent every year without diminishing the real value of the net assets belonging to the Singaporean people. Therefore,
Total Funds Available on $360 billion = 4% x 360 = $14.4 billion
Total Funds Available on $583 billion = 4% x 583 = $ 23.3 billion
So we can safely spend between $14 billion and $23 billion extra per year without diminishing the real value of the people’s assets.
The Government already claims to allocate up to half the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC) from our surplus assets to the Budget. This amounted to some $8 billion in the last Budget. However as we explained in “Smoke and Mirrors in the Government’s Accounts”, “How to Make A Surplus Disappear without Anyone Noticing”, and “Budget 2014: A Very Generous Amount of Wool Pulled over Your Eyes” this is not real spending since the Finance Minister always transfers the money to an unaccountable fund. In 2014 there was much fanfare about the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, which was funded by that year’s NIRC. However actual spending was estimated to be only some $400 million per annum (in 2014 only $230 million).
Reform Party proposes to increase current spending by at least $14 billion per annum and potentially more than $20 billion per annum once we get transparency on the total size of the Government’s assets. By spending we mean actual spending rather than a fictitious transfer by which the PAP shuffle money between accounts without any actual outflow. We can do this without raising taxes or cutting defence spending.
We set out below our spending priorities.
Reform Party’s Spending Proposals
- A Basic Old Age Pension
In our press release entitled “CPF Needs Radical Reform Not Cosmetic Changes”, we proposed that the Government fund a basic old age pension for our seniors of $500 per month over and above CPF balances up to the Minimum Sum. We costed this at less than $3 billion per annum even if this was extended to everyone currently over the age of 65. If it were only given to those on low incomes the cost would be considerably lower. We assume for the purposes of this exercise that a more targeted pension would cost less than $2 billion per annum.
- Higher Health Spending
We would allocate another $6 billion to Health expenditures. This would take spending in the current year, projected to reach $8 billion this year, to $12 billion, reaching the Government’s target for 2020 five years early.
Reform Party is in the process of reviewing our current health system with a view to combining Medishield Life, Medisave and Medisave into a unified system that would provide universal and comprehensive health insurance, including full coverage of pre-existing conditions without additional cost and ensuring that no Singaporean should live in fear of being bankrupted because they have reached their insurance limit and exhausted their Medisave funds. We shall release more details shortly.
- Family Credit
In order to help low-income families with children and as a step towards reversing our current low birth rate Reform Party proposes to institute a system of payments to families with children. We propose initially a payment of $300 per month for each child below the age of 18. Based on estimated numbers of around 800,000 children of Singapore citizens the total cost would be around $3 billion though this could be lowered considerably by restricting it to families on median incomes or less.
- Higher Spending on Education
Reform Party proposes to allocate an additional $2 billion to education spending to help pupils from low-income families, increase teaching hours, abolish fees for education, reduce class sizes and improve teaching standards. We believe that while our overall standard of educational attainment is satisfactory, this masks considerable variations between elite schools and the rest. In addition parents are required to spend considerable amounts on tuition, which should not be necessary.
Total Cost of Reform Party’s Proposals
The total cost of these proposals is $14 billion. Based on the PAP Government’s own figures, we believe this additional expenditure is both prudent and easily affordable.
We consider it to be an investment that will pay dividends in the medium to long term by increasing the productivity and quality of our future workforce. It will also help to reorient the economy more towards domestic consumption and become less dependent on exports. Finally we expect a significant portion of the cost to be recouped through higher tax receipts from higher domestic incomes and expenditures.
Like many other Singaporeans I was shocked when I heard about the case of the UK mother divorced from a Singaporean husband and the ensuing bitter custody dispute over their son. Custody battles and marital breakdown are never pleasant but what shocked me most was the light this case shed on our Ministry of Home affairs whom it appears have been literally asleep on the job. Who actually is guarding our Island and protecting our interests?
To recap on the case. The mother had obtained a court order in the UK giving her custody of her son but the boy’s father had successfully applied for an injunction in Singapore to prevent her taking the child whom he had taken to reside with his Singaporean parents. I do not understand why the father was able to block enforcement of a UK court order granting the mother custody and I sympathise with the mother who was able to convince a UK court that she was a fit person to have custody. However, what she did next was extraordinary. She hired a former London Metropolitan detective to help her recover her child and to abduct him back , by return as it were.
I do not understand why the agency she hired, Child Abduction Recovery International, did not advise her to use the legal route rather than embark on this course of action. But whatever the reason we should be grateful that and the former London Metropolitan detective, Adan Whittington she hired was able to uncover a huge breach in our National security. After just one day of reconnaissance in Singapore he found out a universal truth about Singapore and they were able to easily enter Singapore illegally (see link).
The universal truth he uncovered is that (particularly wealthy) foreigners enjoy privileges and freedoms in Singapore denied to us lesser mortals -( the locals). In this case Mr Whittington soon identified a bastion of privilege and wealth, almost another country in itself, namely Raffles Marina.
Yet again our border protections and security services have been shown to be inadequate and the personnel charged with enforcing border security incompetent if not criminally negligent. The former Met detective should actually be praised for his public service to Singapore in highlighting the huge flaws in our security. In a day he was able to establish that our marinas are unguarded and an easy entry point into Singapore for any potential terrorist with a dirty bomb or biological weapons or dirty funds for laundering or indeed human trafficking. I am often told by anti-death penalty activists that drugs are still very easy to obtain in Singapore despite the well used death penalty and now I understand why.
It was not as though the couple landed on a beach or secluded inlet. Why are yacht marinas which one would have thought would have been an obvious weak point, not under 24 hour surveillance and security? If no immigration personnel are on duty between 6pm and 9am then surely it should be impossible to access or exit the marina? Perhaps the PAP Government’s over eagerness to establish Singapore as a yachting hub for gambling millionaires makes them unwilling to subject owners of yachts to the same laws that lesser mortals like you and I have to obey. After all the PAP’s thinking is probably that anyone who owns or is a passenger on a yacht must be a person whom we want to attract.
The fact that this kind of blunder has happened so frequently would be farcical were the implications for national security not so grave. There was the Mas Selamat incident in 2008, though there the security services were unable to prevent him leaving the country rather than entering. Recently there was the case of the Malaysian woman who was able to get through the Causeway checkpoint by tailgating another car. She was able to drive off before the immigration officer raised the alarm or lowered the barrier. Then she was able to give the police the slip for three days. She actually had to drive into the MFA and create a disturbance before the police were able to apprehend her.
This failure at the most basic level of border security is inexcusable, particularly when contrasted with the amount of money spent on defence and defending our skies. This amounted to some $12.5 billion in 2014 or 3.4% of GDP. By contrast Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia spend much less than Singapore on defence as a proportion of GDP (see link). Parliament is not provided with a breakdown of this spending between equipment and manpower so once again we are left to speculate. My conservative guess would be that more than one-third of this goes on equipment purchases. Recently Jane’s Defence Weekly speculated that Singapore had increased the number of F15SGs, one of the most advanced fighters in the world, it operates to 40. Coupled with over 70 F16s we have by far the most powerful air force in ASEAN.
I am not advocating cutting defence spending, particularly at a time of rising external threats. There is certainly no economic need to do so since the PAP Government is running a budget surplus of about three times the current level of defence spending. I support the reduction of NS to twelve months or less and a larger professional army which may even lead to higher defence spending. However, I do feel that we need to evaluate the effectiveness and relevance of existing weapons programmes and proposed future purchases, particularly when the Government is unable to prevent what next time could be terrorists landing at a regular marina in Singapore without any kind of border control or screening. Without surveillance what is to prevent them offloading miniaturised Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) such as dirty nuclear bombs or lethal biological weapons. Even conventional weapons could be smuggled in. We are an Island and our coast is a natural barrier but also a potential weakness. Let us spend a fraction of what we spend on sophisticated air weapons like the F15 and the proposed F35 Lightning II purchase, on ensuring these basic security lapses do not recur.
Having such negligent border oversight demonstrates that the Home Affairs Minister, Teo Chee Hean, is incompetent and should be replaced. In any other country sch a serious lapse would result in a public enquiry and heads would roll. How did he get to be Admiral without understanding seaborne threats to our security? At the very least he owes us Singaporeans an apology. He is clearly not fit to be a Minister drawing over two million dollars a year plus his MP’s allowance. What are the chances of him doing the decent thing and resigning? I think the chances are close to zero but the people of Pasir Ris-Punggol deserve better and presumably can make their feelings known at the next election!
It appears that our Budget Cash Surplus has fallen off a cliff. The Budget Cash Surplus for FY2012, which was shown as $36.1 billion a year ago, is now stated as $25.3 billion in the latest Monthly Digest of Statistics (MDS). I am indebted to Leong Sze Hian, who published an article in TRS yesterday pointing out this discrepancy as this gives me an opportunity to explain the figures.
So although it looks as though $11 billion has gone missing or disappeared, I believe that there is in fact a simple reason for it.
I think the explanation for the discrepancy is that the figure of $36.1 billion represents the General Government Cash Surplus (GGCS) whereas the figure of $25.3 billion represents the simple Government Cash Surplus (GCS).
The GGCS and the GCS are normally calculated differently. GCS surpluses normally only include the equity share of profits of state-owned companies and statutory boards if there is a dividend paid to the Government. Whereas the GGCS figure includes all the profits of government-owned companies. ( I say normally because as usual our PAP Minister of Finance has not provided any explanation or definitions. Still, I believe this explains the discrepancy.)
If we look at the Yearbook of Statistics (YOS) 2013, the GGCS for FY2011 is stated as $31.9 billion while the GCS is stated at $27.4 billion, a difference of $4.5 billion.
Though this probably explains the difference it does not excuse the PAP Government’s lack of transparency in not publishing a full definition of the different accounting categories. It also does not explain why the use of different measures and revisions to these figures are so frequent. The General Government Cash Surplus is the figure that should be used to determine how much the Government is saving and what it can afford to redistribute back to the citizens in the form of lower taxes and more generous spending on health, education and income support measures. In my view investment in our people, their health and education undoubtedly has much higher returns than the returns that GIC earns on its overseas investments.
I find it inexcusable that the General Government Cash Surplus is not published as part of the Budget process. The public is entitled to know what resources are available so that they can judge what the PAP are withholding from them and ask why. We should not have to find out years later from obscure statistical publications like the YOS or the MDS what the Government’s true fiscal position is.
Instead of a clear set of accounts presented to our people in an easy to understand format we have the charade of the Budget process where the Finance Minister pretends that he is running a balanced budget or even a deficit. In particular as I pointed out at Hri Kumar’s forum this is the question you may all remember watching him dodge the Govt makes presentations that show contributions from Temasek and GIC, in the form of the Net Investment Returns Contributions (NIRC), being used to finance actual spending. I maintain this is not the case . In fact the NIRC are just being moved around , by a stroke of the pen or pressing of a computer key, from one account to another.
As an example, the Pioneer Generation Package is widely trumpeted as being $8 billion. Did you not hear me ask Hri Kumar at the forum why have you got that figure when actual spending is only $240 million this year? By comparison, we pledged over $5 billion in loan commitments to the IMF to support the citizens of Europe.
Recently the Government announced $4 billion of spending over five years in the form of subsidies to keep Medishield Life premiums affordable. The Government says that as a result of the subsidies premium rises will be small, at least, for a transitional period of two years, even though benefits are now more generous. But this is not actual spending. Premiums did not need to rise anyway because the Medishield fund is still in massive surplus. In the US the recently enacted Affordable Care Act means that your health insurer has to give you a refund if it is not spending at least 80% of the money it takes in premiums. Why do we not have that kind of ruling or condition here?
Everyone in the PAP, from the PM down to Hari Kumar, keeps saying that taxes will have to go up if we have any more spending. The Government uses this as a justification for why they cannot return your CPF to you at 55 (apart from a derisory $5,000) if you have below the Minimum Sum. You may squander it or lose it and you will have to pick up the tab because the Government has no resources and is running a deficit.
So, what is the truth? Is the Government running out of money or is it running a massive surplus? As I said in “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing (Or Merely Hidden) Reserves” there are three possibilities:
The PAP Government genuinely believes that Singaporeans are not entitled to benefit from the austerity they have endured for so long or to share in the fruits of foreign worker-driven economic growth. They probably think of Singapore like the UK Premier League, which is the undisputed top league in world soccer, but one in which very few English players now play at the top-level. Just like the owners of Premier League clubs, who can bring in as many foreign players as they like, the PAP feel that they owe no duty to Singaporeans. Instead they feel their electorate is a global one who are attracted by Singapore’s low taxes (for the wealthy), cheap unskilled labour (no minimum wage) and the fact they do not have to worry about having to do NS or pay CPF.
- There has been mismanagement of the reserves and the money simply is not there or has been squandered through poor investments. Countries like Greece (which we indirectly shored up with our generous $5 billion loan commitment to the IMF) have been found to have published fraudulent national accounts. Yet surely this could never happen in Singapore.
One would like to think that the first possibility is the correct one. However the longer the PAP Government fails to be transparent about the size of the surplus and to provide a believable justification for why it needs to hang on to our CPF money, the more the suspicion will grow that there is something to possibilities two and three.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday night, the PM made another statement of breathtaking economic illiteracy. He said, “Singapore must never fall into the same hole as some countries which spend more than they can earn,” Perhaps it is the fact that he studied Mathematics rather than Economics that has led him to make such a fallacious statement. As every first-year student of Economics learns, while one country may be able to increase its savings as long as other countries are willing to go into deficit, if all countries simultaneously tried to increase their savings and run current account surpluses, the result would be a catastrophic slump. This is what caused the Great Depression and fiscal austerity has unnecessarily prolonged the Great Recession since 2009.
However I suspect his motivation is political rather than economic. As the head of Singapore’s elite he has a vested interest in stopping spending on the bottom 80% of the population if it might conceivably lead to a rise in taxes for him and his cronies down the road.
But such fears are unfounded. Singapore is in no danger of spending more than it earns for the forseeable future. We run a current account surplus (which represents our external saving or forgone consumption) of around 20% of GDP year after year. This is already attracting attention internationally from the US and the IMF because of the drag it exerts on world growth.
Singapore has no external debt and while the PAP rip off CPF holders by forcing them to lend money to the government at below-market rates of return, all CPF debt is owned by Singaporeans. So if we were to spend more than we earn we would be borrowing from ourselves. However we are very far away from this ever happening. In fact the rate at which government reserves are accumulating, at least on paper, is accelerating.
As I wrote about in Budget 2014: A Very Generous Amount of Wool Pulled over Your Eyes, the PAP government is hiding a surplus of around $30 billion a year from its citizens. Over the last six years to 2012 the cumulative surplus amounted to $187 billion, even with the poor returns the government has been able to achieve with our captive CPF money. Even the Pioneer Generation Package, which the PM said MPs from both sides of the House had paid tribute to for its generosity, only represents $260 million of current spending and not the $8 billion headline number, which is unlikely ever to be spent. Why then, for goodness’ sake, is the PM talking about taxes having to rise? To quote the PM, “We are alright for the next few years. Beyond that, we must think about raising more revenues.”
One might suspect he has taken leave of his senses. On present trends, using the figures the government reports to IMF, the cumulative surplus to 2020 is likely to be in the region of $250 billion. So either he is mad, mendacious or we should be afraid, very afraid, that our vaunted reserves are not all they are cracked up to be. Government secrecy can be used to hide a multitude of sins.
I wrote about this in “Where have our reserves gone”, “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing (or Merely Hidden) Reserves“, and “An Unappetizing Picture.” It is one of the classic signs of an autocracy that the government treats the people as children, who cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. The Finance Minister’s Budget presentation is certainly like a nursery story for children. It serves to cover their political motives in not wanting Singaporeans to realise how badly they are being short-changed.
However I will reserve further discussion of the contradictions in the PM’s statement to another time. Here I just wanted to make one simple point. If the PM and the PAP were serious about not burdening future generations then why not give HDB owners the freehold of their apartments once they have paid off their thirty-five year loans? As everyone knows, HDB leases are only for ninety-nine years, which means that future generations will have to start the process of paying for a home all over again because the property will revert to the government at the end of the lease.
In his National Day Rally Speech in 2011, the PM said “The way we have done it which I think has been successful has been to give people assets, especially an HDB flat;”. As usual the PM is being economical with the truth, as in an actuality the HDB purchase price should be amortized over the life of the lease. At the end of the lease the asset will be worth zero and our descendants will inherit nothing.
If Singaporeans collectively own the freehold of our HDB properties then we can manage the estates ourselves and make our own decisions about upgrading and redevelopment. The full rise in the value of the land will accrete to us rather than a large part being siphoned off by the government. If the majority of us can never aspire to owning (a share of) freehold property, then we can never become a true democracy, because we will always be dependent on the government. Just as at Cheng San in 1997, the PAP government will continue to try and use Singaporeans’ insecurity over property ownership to ensure that they stay in power. This cannot be to the long-term good of our country
Just to let you know that today Ms J from the Family Centre in Ang Mo Kio did call us back but only to say that Madam L’s case has been referred to the China Town office. This leaves Madam L homeless over the weekend. We are actively trying to find her a space in a shelter. If you have any suggestions or information about vacancies please do let me know asap. Donations of food and clothing would also be appreciated. You can leave your suggestions in the comments here.
Thank You. Kenneth.
I am very pleased that Jeremy has set out in writing his reasons why he disagrees with my proposal for the privatization of Temasek and GIC and the distribution of shares to Singaporeans. I hope we will see more of his ideas on this subject or anyone else’s for that matter. Unfortunately Jeremy’s disagreement seems to stem from a basic misconception and a failure to grasp what the process of privatization and public listing of a previously nationalized asset entails. As he has misunderstood the process much of what he has written makes little sense.
Before we get into that mess let’s start with areas of common agreement. Happily we both agree that there needs to be more transparency. However Jeremy seems to accept the government’s own figures for its budget surplus which I most definitely do not. Our government’s budget figures are not set out in the format described as ‘best practice’ for governments by the IMF and in general use by advanced democracies worldwide. As a result our budget contains discrepancies which makes it impossible (even for me) to decipher and gauge true values. I first alerted Singaporeans to these discrepancies in 2012 here.
Jeremy also agrees with me that one possible way to achieve transparency without privatization and public listing and distribution of shares is the Norwegian model, where the SWF is required to achieve an extremely high level of transparency and is responsible to Parliament for its performance each year. I’ll come onto Norway later because Jeremy gets mixed up by that as well.
Jeremy worries that $6 billion a year of extra spending is being unduly profligate and talks about finding savings in the defence budget to pay for it. This is despite my pointing out that the true surplus in 2012 was at least $36 billion. I also pointed out that even the Net Investment Returns Contribution of $7 billion which is supposed to be allocated to current spending, in fact went straight back into the reserves. The savings to be made in the defence budget are miniscule compared to the surpluses and the amount MOF likes to give away to other nations. In any case I contend that we should be increasing our spending on defence in line with the rest of Asia not reducing it.
I was completely confused by Jeremy’s contentions that privatization (allowing public listing and trading in the shares of our SWFs) would not bring about transparency and accountability and wondered why he brings up the global financial crisis of 2008 as having some relevance to my proposals. I do not see how this is an argument that listing the shares of our SWFs will lead to less transparency. Also why would Jeremy would have brought up MERS as an example? MERS (which stands for Mortgage Electronic Registry Service), is an electronic registry operated by a privately held company (MERSCORP, Inc.) designed to track ownership rights and mortgage loans in the United States. Since this is a privately held company it is not listed on a public stock exchange.
Could it be that Jeremy simply didn’t know what is meant by the term ‘privatization’ when proposing that we allowing public listing and trading in the shares of our SWFs. As his arguments make no sense I am guessing that Jeremy has confused the process of ‘privatization’ with privately owned or he may here be thinking of private equity buy outs. Jeremy is fiercely refuting a proposal that was never posited in the first place.
I don’t see how he could have made this mistake. I even give Warren Buffet’s publicly listed company, Berkshire Hathaway as an example of how transparency is a spur to better performance in my original article.
After mixing up private and publicly listed and so forth Jeremy says that transparency did not prevent the global crisis of 2008. Here Jeremy is correct. But did I say transparency would somehow prevent financial crises? No, I make no claims for transparency by itself. I do not say that it will prevent future financial crises. The cause of that crisis was indeed not a lack of transparency. If anything there was too much data, as Nate Silver makes clear in his excellent book, “The Signal and the Noise”. The problem lay in the interpretation of that data and the conflicts of interest to which certain key institutions like rating agencies were prone. These examples of willful blindness to the fallacies in the analyses by ratings firms were then compounded by the mistakes of policy makers, at least in the initial stages, which almost brought the global financial system to its knees.
There is no argument to be made that a public listing will not bring about a much greater level of transparency. Of course it will.
How about accountability? At present there is very little information available to judge the performance of our SWFs. We do not even know what the real level of assets is. What we do know is that historically there is a strong statistical correlation between the level of secrecy in an organization and the likelihood of mismanagement or fraud.
Privatization and the disclosures that would be necessary if the SWFs were listed would make it much easier to identify underperforming management. It would provide a spur in the side of management, to use LKY’s favoured term. Accountability is like everything else- we have to demand it.
By listing Temasek holdings and GIC, shareholders would be able to vote against the re-election of the board or individual directors at the company’s annual meeting if they felt that the company was underperforming. It is notable that no heads rolled after both Temasek and GIC lost a significant percentage of their value, even though they claimed to have recovered their losses remarkably quickly.
Having to publish regular audited accounts would also allow a spotlight to be shone on the way the management of these companies value their positions. I believe that Singaporeans want to know how the PM’s wife is doing and to be able to move her on if her and her team’s performance is subpar.
Of course just as transparency doesn’t guarantee good governance so even a public listing might not prevent fraud altogether. UBS, in which GIC invested so much and lost most of its investment, is a good example. On balance, if our assets are being squandered and lost through poor investment decisions then I would rather know than not.
Nevertheless a system that allows the government and the managers of the SWFs to transfer assets into the fund at grossly undervalued levels, see “Has Temasek Found A Cure for Balding?”, is one where one should be suspicious of the performance claims by management. Notwithstanding the fact that the current CEO of Temasek got her job purely on merit, as our State-controlled media frequently remind us, privatization would also ensure a separation between management of our SWFs and the government, which is necessary to fulfill any standard good governance requirements.
Jeremy agrees with me on Norway but after that his ideas fall down because he has failed to grasp the fundamental difference between Norway’s situation and that of Singapore. The Norwegian fund has been built up by taxes and royalties on the earnings from the exploitation of the country’s gas and oil reserves. As these are exhaustible resources that, by definition, cannot be replaced, there is a strong argument that they should be represented on the nation’s balance sheet as an asset. They belong not just to the current generation of Norwegians but also to future generations. As they are used up, they should be replaced by financial or real assets such as infrastructure investment. The current generation should only be able to draw on the income from those assets.
Singapore is a different case entirely. The assets of our SWFs represent forgone consumption by present and past generations of Singaporeans. There were no resources that were used up to earn those assets only sacrifice and austerity by Singaporeans past and present. In other words, the sweat of your grandfather’s brow, people being denied medical treatment that is freely available in most other advanced countries and our old people, the disabled and those in single parent households having to live in hardship. I could go on but I have made the point repeatedly that our people live in wholly unnecessary austerity to accumulate surpluses that will never be spent even if they are not frittered away through poor investments.
There is no obligation to pass on these assets to future generations and it should be up to individuals to make their own decisions as to how much they want to leave (in economics we call this their intergenerational time preference function).
One can say with certainty that with productivity growth averaging at least 2% per annum in advanced countries like the US (though maybe only half that in Singapore due to the PAP government’s preference for cheap foreign labour over automation) that future generations as a whole will definitely be much richer than current generations. Likely technological advances may raise this productivity growth by several orders of magnitude.
Thus it is difficult to make a case as to why the state needs to maintain a reserve beyond what is needed for genuine emergencies or to defend the currency. At the moment the MAS has to hold down the Singapore dollar to prevent our currency appreciating too far and making our economy even more uncompetitive, so arguably it does not need to hold excess reserves. In a succinct and admirably clear article (see here) Andy Wong also supports the contention that the reserves are much bigger than they need to be. Furthermore it has not been explained to us why we need to go on accumulating assets at the same rate nor why the PAP government is so anxious to keep postponing the CPF withdrawal age and the minimum sum.
We can think of Singapore as being like an enormous hedge fund, though apparently with only subpar returns. A few government functions are added on, though one day a future government might want to divorce itself from the people entirely and just keep the assets! As a hedge fund, it is in an admirable situation compared to the rest of the industry. This is because it can coerce its investors into keeping their money in the fund and make withdrawals more and more difficult. I am sure a lot of real hedge fund managers would like a similar situation.
This brings us of course to a further reason why the current situation is so unfair to the present generation of Singaporeans. If there were no immigration then future generations would be the descendants of Singapore citizens today and one could argue that to retain a substantial pool of assets in the state’s hands for the benefit of future generations at least had some merit. As an economic liberal who believes in individual choice, I would still prefer those decisions to be made by the individual.
However, the PAP government seems determined to dilute the current generation’s stake in the SWFs by enfranchising millions of new citizens. It has been suggested that the underlying reason behind this is to maintain its grip on power. While it still has control over the people’s assets it has an enormous carrot to use to induce foreigners to become citizens and to bribe them once they do so. We can already see that happening in a limited way with the foreign scholarship programmes that our SWFs have set up.
Thus, while I would support some form of progressivity in the distribution of shares to try and ensure that more of the assets go to those at the bottom of the wealth distribution in an effort to promote genuine equality of opportunity, as opposed to the present fake meritocracy, I do not see any rational argument why the bulk of the assets need to be held back by the state as Jeremy advocates. His self-confessed collectivist bent is not radically different from the PAP’s and does not represent genuine reform. Despite saying he wants more transparency he seems to favour keeping the status quo. While he may feel that readers may be impressed by his knowledge of simultaneous equations from O Level Maths, it does not really buttress his arguments which have shaky theoretical underpinnings and some serious fundamental errors.
Nevertheless it is great that he has come forward to provide a rationale and hopefully we can have more reasoned debate in the future. As Jeremy is an SDP policy author, the more common ground we can establish now the better.
Mr Tan Kin Lian has previously written twice about the constitutionality of the loan that Singapore made to the IMF. He is kinder than me in his writing style but he comes to the same conclusions. And this is a man whom the select panel deemed fit to run for President of our Republic! He thinks the loan was unconstitutional and he wants to help me appeal it on behalf of all Singaporeans.
On July 07th 2012, Tan Kin Lian had raised the issue of constitutionality of the loan here:
Of course he did. As an EP candidate how could he keep quiet? He said, “I am surprised that MAS would give the above type of explanation – as it seemed to defy logic and common sense.”
On July 12th 2012 he wrote an open letter to the Straits Times forum. Here is some of what he said:
” I am. therefore, amazed by the arguments put forward by the Monetary Authority of Singapore that the pledge given to the IMF, as it now stands, did not breach the Constitution. If the position of MAS is correct, it is better for the Constitution to be re-written to reflect the position taken by MAS.
A few days back there was a comment posted on my blog by @Lengyiren drawing my attention to a posting on www.gov.sg saying that the government had rebutted my claims about the reserves. The link to the so-called rebuttal is http://www.gov.sg/government/web/content/govsg/classic/factually/factually-041012-istheresomethingwrongwithourreserves.
This portal is maintained by the brave people at MICA who defamed me in the WSJ by claiming that I had misrepresented basic facts about my father’s bankruptcy and ensured through their control of the media that their version was printed while my right of reply was denied. One can see the MICA trademarks of sloppy editing and elementary grammatical mistakes such as saying “are flowed to” instead of “flow to”.
Actually they do not mention me directly referring instead to “some online postings.” And in fact since it was Christopher Balding and not me who made the mistakes to which they refer, perhaps the post was solely directed at him. Nevertheless I felt it important that I respond lest readers think that I am guilty of the same errors.
Read the rest of this entry
I have highlighted articles from blog spot Article 14 previously on Rethinking the Rice Bowl. “Subra” states on his blog to be a Singaporean lecturer in law here and he clearly has the talented teacher’s skill of setting out complex subject matter in a simple, easy to understand manner. Several very good reasons why everyone should read his latest article: http://article14.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/everybodys-talking-about-talking.html But he has added a twist that I didn’t notice.