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.
Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that Temasek Holdings, with no sense of irony, was pressing Standard Chartered to appoint more independent directors (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443768804578034210943017432.html?KEYWORDS=standard+chartered). The article went on to say that, despite earlier reports in the FT, Temasek did not have any immediate plans to sell its stake in the bank. I discussed a possible sale of Temasek’s stake in “Roach Motel or Investing for the Long Term: You Decide What Best Describes Temasek’ s Investment Strategy” (http://sonofadud.com/2012/09/26/roach-motel-or-investing-for-the-long-term-you-decide-what-best-describes-temaseks-investment-strategy/).
The WSJ article quoted “a person close to Standard Chartered” who said “the dispute stems from Temasek’s desire for the bank to have a supervisory board consisting of just one Standard Chartered executive, with the rest of the board made up of independent directors.” The article went on to say that in its latest annual report Temasek had added a section about governance saying “To provide effective oversight of management on behalf of all shareholders, we advocate that boards be independent of management. We do not support excessive numbers of executive members on company boards.”
While these are admirable principles in practice the sentiments made me wonder how many of Temasek’s board could be said to be independent of the company or its 100% shareholder, the government. I decided to look at the background of the other members of the board, apart from the Chairman, Mr. Dhanabalan and the CEO, Madam Ho Ching, to see how many were truly independent. I also compared Temasek’s governance framework with the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund to see how far we were following what could legitimately be called best practice.