In Singapore: Truth is No Defense

A number of years ago when I had finished my manuscript for my book on sovereign wealth funds, I realized that there was potential legal risk arising from the litigious nature of the Singaporean government.  My publisher arranged to have a well known American lawyer with experience in Singapore on freedom of the press and defamation review the book.

When I met with him to review the manuscript in detail and make edits, he explained the legal standard for writing in Singapore.  It is frighteningly simple and draconian: truth is not a defense.  Everything I wrote in my book was fact checked multiple times by multiple people but as he emphasized in Singapore, it simply does not matter.

Yesterday in the damages portion of the lawsuit against Roy Ngerng by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the absurdity of this legal standard was on full display.  In response to the inquiry whether the facts on Mr. Ngerng’s blog were accurate the son of the first prime minister of Singapore responded “the quotes are factual but the article is not.”  Mr. Lee has presented no evidence to refute the facts, that even he does not dispute, or demonstrate how the facts presented by Mr. Ngerng are constructed to create a false narrative.  Mr. Lee refuses to even argue about the truth.  He later argued that “…there’s not point going through it again other than to aggravate damages.”

Put this dispute in perspective.  Mr. Lee is not disputing facts presented by Mr. Ngerng but rather that his feelings were hurt.  The problem the son of the first prime minister faces is that he cannot argue facts with Mr. Ngerng.  There is clear public evidence that the Lee family has personally benefited from the financial dealings of Temasek which could be presented in open court.  There is clear evidence that public Singaporean funds have been used to subsidize Temasek owned firms.  There is clear evidence that enormous discrepancies exist in Singaporean public finances.  $822 billion SGD in free cash flow over 40 years cannot earn 16% and 7% and be transformed into $834 billion.  These are facts.

It is only in the Kafkaesque world of the Singaporean system that facts are irrelevant.  $800 billion discrepancies mere inconveniences compared to the over sensitive feelings of pampered children.  I have always offered to come to Singapore and allow myself to be sued and this offer still stands.  It reveals the weakness of the sons position that he refuses to discuss facts but rather the sensitivity of his feelings.  If I could not argue on the merits, it makes sense to exclude truth as a defense.  Welcome to Singapore Mr. Ngerng.

The Largest Financial Discrepancies Ever?

Singapore public finances contain the largest unexplained financial discrepancies in human history.  That may sound like a grandiose rhetorical bombast, but it is completely and entirely accurate description of existing data.  Using nothing more complex that addition, subtraction, compounding interest, and official Singaporean public financial records, anyone can easily see that enormous discrepancies exist.

The financial irregularities in Singaporean financials are easy to spot when attempting to simply accept all their claims as true and valid.  It is a straightforward mathematical impossibility that all their claims about their finances are true.  Let us present the fundamentals of what Singapore is claiming.

  1. From 1974 to 2014, Singapore enjoyed operational surpluses totaling $369 billion SGD.
  2. From 1974 to 2014, Singapore increased public indebtedness from $5 billion SGD to approximately $388 billion SGD. Singapore claims that this was for investment purposes and given the operational surpluses, it had no need to be consumed via public expenditure.
  3. From 1974 to 2014, Singapore enjoyed total free cash flow from operational surplus and net liability incurrence, totaling $822 billion SGD.
  4. From 1974 to 2014, Temasek Holdings claimed an annualized 16% return beginning with a $374 million SGD portfolio value at inception.
  5. For most of its existence, the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore has claimed a long term annualized return of 7% in USD terms.
  6. The Singapore government lists financial assets of $834 billion SGD on its public balance sheet.

Those are the facts that the Singaporean government claims to be true.  Without knowing anything about finance or conducting in depth analysis everyone should find two claims by Singapore completely contradictory: if Singapore enjoyed such free cash flow of $822 billion SGD for 41 years, how can its claims to produce stellar to world beating investment returns be reconciled with their declaration of only $834 billion in financial assets?

Using conservative estimates that account for debt servicing costs, currency losses from USD returns, and matching existing declared government cash holdings with the assumption that cash earns no return, if we accept Temasek and GIC claims about their returns along with the declared financial assets on the public balance sheet there remains a $670 billion SGD or $499 billion USD discrepancy.  Using a slightly less conservative assumption on cash holdings produces a discrepancy, while still using the claims of the Singaporean government, of $848 billion SGD or $631 billion USD.

It must be strongly emphasized that these estimates are produced using official Singapore financial data and assuming that the claims of the Singapore government, Temasek, and GIC are true and accurate.  If the claims by the Singapore government and its related entities are to be believed, then enormous discrepancies exist what their declared assets are and what they should have.  It belies common sense that $822 billion SGD can be invested over 41 years and produce only $834 bilion SGD even after accounting for debt service and currency losses.

In the days and weeks ahead, I will be writing extensively on Singaporean public finances taking different parts of the data, entities, and key official involved to provide clear evidence of the discrepancy.  This will include a large amount of collected data which will be released for anyone to review.  This will include evidence of how key Singaporeans have benefited enormously from this flow of money, historical examples of financial impropriety, and raise serious questions about ongoing financial transfers.

Based upon all available evidence, while it may seem rhetorical flourish, all existing evidence indicates that Singapore is sitting on the largest unexplained discrepancies ever.

S&P Looks at Temasek Part II

The S&P criteria for evaluating investment holding companies (IHC’s) has the potential to move Temasek from a AAA rated credit firm to Greece as the headlines have noted.  While this headline does accurately capture the potential impact, too many have focused on the outcome and a misreading of the its implication and not enough effort focusing on how the proposed methodology arrives at the new rating.  In fact, the potential outcome of the S&P proposal rests on much more technical reasons than a sudden belief that Temasek is a low credit quality firm.

The biggest proposed change is the importance S&P gives to liquidity in their risk assessment of IHC’s noting that “we propose to give a greater weight to our assessment of asset liquidity than to our assessments of asset diversity and asset credit quality.”   S&P stresses the importance of liquidity “…because the ability to sell assets quickly is the ultimate source of debt repayment if an IHC cannot refinance maturing debt.  Our assessment reflects how quickly we expect the entity can liquidate assets at a reasonable price.”

There are solid financial reasons, especially for a firm like Temasek, to accept higher liquidity risk by holding lower liquidity assets.  Studies have found that asset liquidity is valued so that financial firms, such as hedge funds, willing to hold lower liquidity assets receive a premium for bearing that risk.  University endowments have targeted lower liquidity investments given longer investment time horizons and the ability to sell at their discretion.

The second major proposal is to use “spot prices” rather than some “average price over n trading days – to value listed assets.”  Related to but also distinctly different from liquidity, this focuses on what price could assets be sold to cover debt payments.  This debate has raged for how banks should value their loan portfolios in what is typically called “mark to market” by valuing a bond or loan at the market price the bank could expect to sell it at or at some other less potentially volatile rate such as a long term average or expected stream of cash flow basis.

There is reasonable and straightforward logic as to why spot prices should not be used.  Let’s use a simple scenario to illustrate why.  Assume the market price of an asset declines and a financial institution reaches a level where they have to sell the asset to cover their debt payment.  When they sell an asset this further depresses the market price potentially causing other firms to be forced to sell.  It is also possible to recreate this scenario in reverse when prices are going up.  Fundamentally, there is a solid argument that using market prices can increase volatility.  It should be strongly emphasized that reasonable people have reasonable disagreements on this very tricky issue.

While these two concepts need to be considered separately, they also need to be considered jointly.   S&P is proposing that we ask the following about credit risk as it pertains to IHC’s: if an IHC needs to sell assets to repay a debt, how easily can it sell its financial assets and at what price?

How do these concepts apply to Temasek specifically?  Temasek can reasonably be considered a somewhat less liquid IHC for two reasons.  First, Temasek asset holdings are relatively concentrated.  Temasek holdings are concentrated with significant stakes in key firms like Singapore Telecom, DBS, Standard and Chartered, and China Construction Bank.  As one article noted, approximately 50% of Temasek assets are concentrated in ten firms.  If Temasek needed to sell some of these stakes, given the large size of the holdings, this would reduce the liquidity by pushing down the price if Temasek needed to sell a significant amount or if the market found out Temasek was selling a sizable block.  Also, if Temasek ever needed to sell its entire stake in a major holding, this would significantly reduce companies with the ability to finance large acquisitions.

Compare this to Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM) which manages the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund.  They have limited themselves to 2% of outstanding equity of any company they hold.  While this essentially turns them into an index fund as they hold 1-2% of most every listed company, this also means that they remain very liquid.  NBIM is able to easily sell stakes in entire companies in relatively short periods of time or in many companies when needed.  In short, there is elevated liquidity risk due to the concentration of Temasek’s portfolio.

Second, there is what I will term political liquidity risk.  Look at the major holdings in Temasek’s portfolio and you will see politically strategic firms like Singapore Telecom, DBS, and Singapore Airlines.  Those are for all practical purposes completely illiquid investments where Temasek depends on dividend cash flow for debt repayment.  Removing firms from the Temasek portfolio that are for all practical purposes illiquid, reduces Temasek liquidity to cover debt repayment even further.  The S&P concern over liquidity risk has a significant impact when focusing on Temasek.

Turning to the question of what price Temasek might be able to secure for its assets under different market conditions returns us to the issue of asset concentration and political risk.  Not only is the Temasek portfolio concentrated within its portfolio, it is concentrated by industry and geography with an increasing allocation to higher risk assets like financial and natural resource firms.  For example, three of the top four holdings are in financial firms and Temasek remains closely linked to Singapore and surrounding countries.  This implies a high degree of correlation among their holdings.  If the market is declining, then Temasek would need to price any significant asset sale at an even larger discount.  Conversely, in a rising market Temasek might be able to extract a sizable premium for one of its strategic stakes.  However, given the concern about debt coverage from asset sales, we should focus on down markets and again there is cause for concern.  There would be significant pricing pressures on any significant asset sales by Temasek.

There would also be pricing pressure due to potential political risk.  Let’s assume for one moment that Temasek decides to sell a significant stake Singapore Telecom, DBS, or Singapore Airlines.  Given the long historical record, key personnel through each firm, and political significance, any buyer would be enormously concerned about undue influence exercised after the sale.  The same could also be said about most Asian holdings for instance in China Construction Bank or Bank of China.  The Chinese government would most likely have a strong opinion about Temasek selling its holding to anyone else.  Political risk is likely to impact the final sales price and not positively.

The primary risks the S&P is proposing to increase in its credit model for IHC’s are the ability to sell and the price it will receive for selling.  I believe there is a fair and reasonable case to be made that when Temasek is narrowly analyzed against these two criteria, it does have an elevated risk level.  There is good reason to have some concern over liquidity and asset pricing risk should it need to sell assets to cover debt repayment.

As noted at the beginning of this article, while the S&P frameworks does raise the risk profile of Temasek, it is important to note the reasons why.  Their reasoning focus on specific and technical issues and not due to a new belief in the underlying quality of Temasek assets.

Note:  Part III will cover the Temasek response, whether they should be considered as risky as Greece, and other bigger picture issues.

S&P Looks at Temasek and Sovereign Wealth Funds Part I

Somehow I missed the November release of the credit ratings agency S&P asking for comments on its proposal for updating standards of investment holding companies (IHC) and government related entities (GRE).  This is both a somewhat technical exercise and discussion by credit ratings agencies that takes place to reassess their standards for evaluating credit risk but also has very tangible impact on Singaporeans and can be explained in ways that make sense.

Before beginning to analyze the proposed S&P standards and Temasek’s response, let me try and provide some background to better understand the overall situation.

  1. S&P is one of the three major global credit ratings agencies along with Moody’s and Fitch.  Their market dominance stems primarily from their oligopolist position conferred by the US government within the American market.  Less than 10 credit rating agencies in the United States are recognized as “nationally recognized statistical reporting agency” which allows a privileged position for instance in rating investment grade debt held by a large variety of institutions.  The big three are estimated to control approximately 95% of the credit rating market in the United States which they leverage into dominant positions throughout the world.
  2. S&P, in putting forth generalized standards, is trying to create a clear, transparent, framework that they can use to compare different companies rather than make every analysis unique.  To take a simple scenario, they might state that companies with a debt to equity ratio of greater than 3:1 will receive a B rating while a company under than will receive an A.  Framework standard sacrifice detail and uniqueness, which individual analysts will provide later when researching companies, for broad standards than can be applied throughout the world.
  3. The broad framework standards used by every credit ratings agency can be used to disguise the true risk.  Frameworks to assess credit risk are generally solid guidelines but like all rules can be used to manipulate the overall system.  During the global financial crisis, many mortgage linked products met the technical guidelines to receive a high rating even if it clearly masked the true level of risk for that financial instrument.  Guidelines laid forth by ratings agencies should be considered fallible frameworks that attempt to capture common risk factors but they absolutely should not be considered final and perfect assessments of individual risk.
  4. Credit rating agencies are riddled with group think and conflicts of interests, but at the same time historical data reveals a very clear relationship between defaults and ratings.  The riskier the rating the higher the probability of default (PDF).  Credit ratings are imperfect by any measure with a systematic downward risk bias, but they should be ignored at your peril.  There is a strong relationship between both initial rating and adjusted rating and default probability.
  5. Credit ratings rarely change so consequently, there is a lot more interest in the framework or the rules that allow firms to receive top credit ratings.  Unlike credit default swaps (CDS) which trade daily and can be used to predict default probability, bond ratings typically go years without a ratings change so the initial rules of the game matter a lot more.  According to S&P, the last time it changed its IHC framework was May 2004 when it was entitled “Rating Methodology For European Investment Holding And Operating Holding Companies.”  The “European” in the title should giveaway how outdated the S&P framework is.
  6. Every firm that does not receive the rating they feel they deserve will loudly protest that there are factors unique to their situation that the ratings body is not accurately weighing.  Most of the time, but definitely not always, firms arguments that the ratings agencies fail to accurately understand their industry or firm are poor attempts to gain a better ratings.  Credit ratings by the large agencies on average accurately assess the credit risk associated with firm issued debt.  If anything, credit ratings agencies on average understate rather than overstating the risk associated with debt products.
  7. S&P in its framework creation rarely deals with the type of issues I raise such as accounting or corporate governance problems but rather on much narrower concerns focused on whether debt can be repaid and potential stress concerns.  For instance, two issue which S&P raises which may seem technical are liquidity and mark to market vs. trailing average over some period.  Again, these are broader framework issues narrowly focused on repayment rather than the specific corporate concerns.

So as not to turn this into an excessively lengthy post, I am going to limit this post to the broader framework and background surrounding this issue.  This is a very important issue that has very real ramifications for Temasek, Singapore, and everyday Singaporeans.  I want to make sure the background and broader issues are understood so that when I turn to analyzing S&P’s proposal and the Temasek argument, everyone is aware of what is unfolding.

This may seem somewhat technical and boring but let me assure you it is vitally important and will be very important.

Subsidizing Profits, SMRT, and Temasek

In 2008 during the global financial crisis, United States politicians debated whether bailing out failing banks would set the precedent of ‘privatizing profits and socializing losses’.  Economists call this problem “moral hazard” when companies are not forced to recognize their risks and consequently accept higher risks knowing a third party will absorb their losses.  While the debate rages about whether major US and international banks privatized the profits and socialized the losses, this is standard practice with many Singaporean and specifically Temasek owned companies.

SMRT is probably the best example of this practice within Singapore.  As I have noted elsewhere,   SMRT and other Temasek firms enjoy tremendous privileges that other foreign or even other Singapore firms simply do not enjoy.  For many year, the Singaporean government has paid for the capital that that SMRT uses everyday.  The tunnels, the rail lines, the subway cars, and buses that SMRT uses everyday have been purchased by the Singaporean tax payer.

The financial effect is simple.  SMRT as a publicly listed company and a portfolio company owned by Temasek makes money only because of the generosity of the government and the Singapore tax payer.  Despite having recently declared a $62 million SGD net profit for the year, SMRT depends heavily on the gifts of the Singapore tax payer through gifted buses and other infrastructure.  If SMRT had to make principal and interest payments on the buses alone, it would require yearly payments of $150 million SGD.  The financial effect is this: SMRT profit is entirely attributable to subsidies given to it by the Singaporean tax payer and not high quality management at Temasek.  Put another way, Temasek and its senior executive are only able to declare a profit for SMRT because the Singapore government gives it money.

There are three more philosophical reasons this matter.  First, most people appreciate and respect the success of other when gained through skill, talent, and hard work but resent unfairly gained benefits.  This is why few people complain about companies like Apple or Google, they make a good product and compete with others.  SMRT has not achieved its profitability due to providing a top quality product against fair competition, but through political manipulation and public bailouts.

Second, SMRT is socializing the risk and privatizing the profits.  When losses are incurred it is the Singapore tax payer that suffers but when profits received, it is the executive of Temasek that enjoys the benefit.  SMRT is placing the risk on the tax payer but capturing the benefit for itself.  While individuals or firms taking individual or corporate risk should be allowed to keep those profits private or socialize risk and profits, it is truly objectionable to socialize the risk but privatize the profits.

Third, the true financial and economic cost of SMRT and related infrastructure is not being recognized.  As one economist noted, if something cannot go on forever it will stop.  Singapore, SMRT, and Temasek cannot maintain a loss making firm dependent on regular bail outs to report profits or eventually it will stop.  By hiding the true cost of ownership, maintenance, and investment, the government is attempting to protect its Temasek owned asset rather than the tax payer.

Mass and public transport is a notoriously difficult and generally loss making industry.  It is however, morally reprehensible to pretend that a company is making money and use tax payer money to create  profits for the investments of family members.  The people of Singapore are being defrauded by bearing the risk of investment but seeing none of the profits.

Note: This piece was prompted by a post in the TREmeritus.com last week asking whether SMRT was a public or private company.

Recent Academic Work on Temasek

A few days ago I received a copy of a paper appearing in the journal World Economics from Friedrich Wu a professor at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore about his recent research on Temasek.  Now before I talk about the paper, I want to emphasize something.  I had never seen this paper before a couple of days ago, never corresponded with Dr. Wu before the other day, or provided any input on the paper.

To most in Singapore who know about Temasek, much of the material will be familiar with a significant portion of the material covered.  The strengths of this paper, and worth reading to even the knowledgeable Singaporean reader, are its analysis of the shift in investment strategy prior to the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent changes in their capital allocation.   The paper notes among other things that:

“The GFC highlighted Temasek’s overexposure to the financial services sector. This could have prompted it to decrease the share of its holdings in this industry from 40% in 2008 to 31% in 2013… Standard & Poor’s, however, insists that Temasek is still overexposed to financial services.”

The paper also notes the relatively higher level of political risk Temasek accepts.  Not only is Temasek filled with PAP party favorites and relatives, but its investments are increasingly tied to political questions.  The recent failure of the Indonesian bank take over which the Indonesian government tied to opening up the Singaporean banking market, something the Singaporean government refused, fail to assuage foreign governments that Temasek is a purely commercial government owned enterprise.  Though Temasek appears to have gotten a good deal in its purchase of Watson’s Drug from Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing, it won’t comfort Singaporean’s to others to note that Mr. Li said in a press conference that “the transaction wasn’t based solely on pricing…”.

Prof. Wu even mentions me fairly writing about my work that “As Temasek is not required to file its audited financial statements with the public registry, there are no concrete means of ascertaining the validity of either Temasek’s TSR claims or Balding’s argument.”  I think is an entirely fair statement to make because until Temasek actually reveals information about its financials and returns, we cannot make a definitive assessment of the truth of their claims.  I believe very strongly that the overwhelming evidence supports the idea that Temasek has not and continues to misrepresent its long term returns and financial health, but that we cannot know with absolute certainty at the moment.

I believe there are two fundamental problems, which to this date neither Temasek nor anyone defending them, have been able to address.  First, Temasek is claiming long term annual returns which are double what virtually every stock market in the world has earned.  Add that up since 1974, the year of Temasek’s inception, and the differences are just enormous.  Let’s begin by looking at Figure 1 which plots major stock markets and Singapore stock returns since 1974.

As you can see, most stock markets have returned pretty similar annualized rates of return which average out to 7-8% annually.  Hong Kong with its own rapid expansion and then the inflow from Chinese listings is the outlier, coming in at 9% annually since 1974.  Now let’s put it into perspective, just how large a difference Temsek is claiming below in Figure 2.

Temasek is claiming not that they did a little better than every major stock market, and the Singaporean index, since 1974 but that they simple obliterated it.  According to Temasek they beat indexes every year by a factor of about 2 to 1, which over 40 years adds up to Temasek beating global stock by a factor of nearly 20.   This is truly astounding performance and Temasek should just start giving investment lessons to Warren Buffet and every other investor in the world.

The second major problem is the large public surpluses and investment capital from CPF that has flowed through the Singaporean public purse.  Since 1974 Singapore in adding up operational government surpluses and investment capital from CPF, received more than $700 billion SGD in total yearly inflows.  Temasek and GIC claim they have earned 16% in SGD terms and 7% in USD terms over the long run.  Astoundingly, the Singapore balance sheet as of March 31, 2012 listed only $765 billion in assets.

The discrepancy between the financial assets Singapore has and should have based on the inflows it received, is enormous.  If GIC and Temasek are earning what they are claiming, even after subtracting out currency losses and interest on CPF capital to savers, Singapore should have approximately double the financial assets it lists on its balance sheet.  This is not unique financial theory but simply the laws of mathematics and the public data provided by the Singapore government.  Surpluses do not disappear and investment capital from CPF has to go somewhere.

 

I am sure that Temasek senior management thinks I am a quack.  However, this merely pushes me on because I know that they could prove me wrong and embarrass me easily by proving me wrong with minimal data releases.  They have chosen not to because, as I strongly suspect, they know that the evidence supports my version of events, even if imperfectly, much more than their version.  I have offered time and time again to publish a full retraction and apology to the Singaporean government, Temasek, and the Singaporean people if Temasek can provide data that proves I am wrong.  They have not.

 

You be the judge of what they believe that means.

Why is SMRT Raising Fares?

Lost amid the Anton Casey mess was the announcement that SMRT would raise fares by more than 3% in 2014 and additional 3% in 2015.  With yesterdays announcement that SMRT profit had fallen by more than 40%, SMRT appears destined to take increasingly stronger steps to maintain profitability.  While people have understandably been upset by the fare increase, there appears to be a poor understanding of how this fits into the larger picture of Singaporean public finances and the Temasek portfolio.

  1. Transportation companies and especially public transport companies are notoriously unprofitable.  There is a reason there are virtually no listed public transportation companies and that is because they are unprofitable.  Throughout the world, whether it is North America, Europe, or even Asia (Singapore and Hong Kong excluded) public transportation companies like bus and rail companies do not make money.  Public transport train, subway, and bus companies from Japan to Germany are rarely profitable enterprises.
  2. SMRT is an immensely profitable firm.  Despite being in a difficult industry, SMRT has posted net profit margins of nearly 20% as recently as 2010 and even in its most difficult recent year still managed to post a net profit margin of 7.3% equaling $83 million SGD.  In other words, despite declaring a healthy net profit, SMRT has also declared its business model “unsustainable”.  This begs the question: what is driving the unreliability and financial problems at SMRT?
  3. SMRT is receiving subsidized profits via government funds.  Though most people are aware of the subsidized fares available to seniors and students, there are two much larger and less obvious ways the government subsidizes SMRT.  First, the Singapore government has been gifting buses to the SMRT most recently to the tune of $1.1 billion SGD resulting in an annual implied subsidy.    If we take a simple scenario assuming this money was loaned to SMRT over 10 years at 5% annual interest, this would necessitate annual payments of $142 million SGD.  Consider, that SMRT only recorded net income of $161 million in 2011 declining to $83 million for the year ending March 31, 2013.  It becomes obvious how important this implicit subsidy become to SMRT reporting yearly net profits around 10%.

 

Second, though there is no public statement about the agreement between SMRT and the government on the rail, subway, and light rail assets, given the generosity of the government to SMRT with regards to buses, it stands to reason that they are displaying a similar level of generosity with regards to rail assets.  The government of Singapore paid for out of public funds and built rail and subway lines and then reach an agreement for SMRT to pay the government for the use of these assets.  If the government is not charging SMRT a cost plus rate for the use of those rail assets, as is the most likely scenario, this represents an additional significant subsidy.  Given the large amount of money invested by the Singaporean government over time but the longer expected of life span of rail assets when coupled with the bus subsidy, it would be conservative to estimate an implied subsidy of greater than $200 million SGD annually to SMRT.  Given their recent net profit of $83 million and their $163 million in 2010, this implied subsidy represents between 125-250% of net profits.

 

  1. This matters because SMRT is a publicly traded firm and a portfolio company of Temasek.  SMRT is publicly traded and counts Temasek as its dominant shareholder.  Temasek repeatedly boasts its superior asset management in producing 16% annualized returns since 1974 and SMRT has produced consistently high rates of return producing an 18% net profit in 2010.  Given the close links between the government and Temasek, each has an incentive to ensure continued profitability even if that means the government gives money to Temasek managed firms so they can declare a profit.  SMRT is only making a profit because of government subsidies not due to superior management.  If the government wants to give money to SMRT for the purpose of maintaining service, this would be a reasonable use of public funds.  However, the government giving money to SMRT so it can declare a profit and increase the rate of return for government linked shareholders is nothing less than cronyism.

Let me strongly emphasize that given the difficult nature of the public transportation industry, I am not philosophically opposed to public private partnerships in this area.  However, it seems to be a clear conflict of interest and inappropriate for the government to be subsidizing the profits of a publicly listed firm that is owned by a government owned investment firm.  SMRT clearly has no profits without government subsidies and the subsidies should not be used to allow Temasek or other executives to meet profit or return targets for bonuses.

From the “This Can Only Mean Good Things” file

China is a flurry of activity right now.  The Economist reports on Chinese interest in spinning off its state owned enterprises into a holding company built around the Temasek model.  They write:

…the Development Research Centre (DRC), a government think-tank, advertised an ambitious set of reform proposals, including an overhaul of China’s inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Simply privatising these companies remains out of the question for China’s leaders. But there are alternatives, and Singapore provides one.  The DRC’s plan named Temasek, a holding company for SOEs in Singapore, as a potential model.

Just as the China Investment Corporation essentially owns the banking industry in China through its holdings of the four major state banks in China, they want to replicate Temasek management as holding DBS and promoting it as a national champion while shielding it from domestic competition.

What is interesting is what The Economist notes is driving this Chinese interest.

The enthusiasm for reform of SOEs in China reflects their deteriorating returns and accumulating debt. According to M.K. Tang of Goldman Sachs, their return on assets was 6.5 percentage points below that of other Chinese firms in 2012 and their shares trade at a growing discount.

As I noted in previous posts about what is driving Chinese reform: not a position of strength trying to become stronger, but an intimate knowledge of just how bad resource allocation is in China and just how weak state owned enterprises are and specifically the banks.

I think there is one key mistake in this article and that concerns the distance between Temasek and its major portfolio companies.  The Economist writes:

…the Temasek model also allows the state to distance itself from the management of its enterprises, without relinquishing ownership. Temasek avoids meddling in the day-to-day running of the GLCs in its portfolio, which are free to hire professional managers at market rates. With a few exceptions, it does not directly appoint board members either….Temasek has evolved into an active investor, but not an activist one, says Stephen Forshaw, its chief spokesman. Although it does not appoint directors, it does meet regularly with its wards’ boards to make its feelings known.

It is entirely true that Temasek is not an activist shareholder but considering the level of political influence they have over key executives in their Singaporean based portfolio, there is no need for formal control such as board seats.  Virtually all senior executives at Temasek linked Singaporean companies are politically preferred appointees.  Many are PAP appointees hired for the government connections.

Given the Communist Party control over Chinese financial industry and other key sectors appointed by informal relationship to the government, China is already be operating under a version of the Temasek model.  It should then come as no surprise that Chinese bank financial returns are just as fraudulent managed as Temasek’s fraudulent managed financial statements.

PS:  Lest anyone doubt my undying love for Singapore Airlines, it is now proclaimed in The Economist when they write that “Even Mr Balding, meanwhile, is happy to fly Singapore Airlines.”  I am.  Singapore Airlines: call me maybe.

The Real CPF Scam

I recently read Part I and Part II by Leong Sze Hian and Roy Ngerng on the Central Provident Fund of Singapore and commend them for their level of detail and analysis.  I would urge everyone to read and re-read their work to understand what is going on financially in Singapore.  Rather than revisiting or reanalyzing their work, I would like to emphasize a couple of points which I believe are of central importance to understand the financial management of Singapore.

First, the CPF acts as an implicit tax on Singaporeans forcing you into lower earning CPF investments.  Currently, CPF returns 2.5-4% beneath returns on other assets and beneath the rate of inflation incurring large losses on savers.  What makes this forced saving is that it is regressive in nature.  In other words, it penalizes the poor more than the wealthy.  This is simply immoral.  Ask yourself whether the wealthy in Singapore who make little if any forced CPF contributions would accept earning 2.5% on their investments?

Second, given that CPF contributions are invested with either GIC or Temasek, the government is essentially confiscating all returns above the CPF rate of return.  This is best noted in Chart 6 of Part II.  The implication here is that the Singaporean government is keeping an enormous amount of money using the retirement savings of its citizens.

Let me try and make this concrete and use a hypothetical scenario.  I am an investment manager and you have money for retirement savings you want to invest.  Like any informed consumer you ask me how much I will charge you to be the investment manager.  I reply, if you invest your money with me, I will keep most of the money you make and if I lose money, well you lose.  Would you invest your hard earned money with anyone who gave you that sales pitch?

If this one-sided deal sounds too absurd to believe then look no further than Temasek Holdings and GIC.  While there are valid unanswered questions about the returns of Temasek which have been written about in great detail, all Temasek money belongs to the citizens of Singapore not the government, executives, or other special parties.

Public surpluses and CPF capital saved by the citizens of Singapore is used to fund Temasek and GIC.  Yet, the government of Singapore only pays savers 2.5-4% despite claims of earning 7 and 17% respectively between GIC and Temasek.  That claimed 7%  earned by GIC in USD belongs to CPF savers and the people of Singapore.  The claimed 17% earned by Temasek in SGD belongs to the people of Singapore who provided the public surpluses and capital investment to build companies.

CPF contributions are borrowed to finance investment.  The CPF saver receives a guaranteed 2.5-4% while the borrowing party, GIC or Temasek receive all returns in excess of 2.5-4%.  The government via GIC and Temasek is confiscating returns that belong to CPF savers and taxpayers.

This is not an insignificant amount of money that the government of Singapore via CPF contributions is confiscating for its own use.  As I estimated here, an average Singaporean earning an average wage with CPF contributions and CPF interest would have approximately $537,000 at the end of their working career.  However, if we took those contributions and they earned GIC interest, they would now have $799,000.  If they earned the Temasek rate of return the average Singaporean would have $4 million SGD in the bank after a career of hard work.

That means that if the average Singaporean was not confined to earning below market returns in CPF savings, they would be $300,000-3,500,000 richer!  Put another way, the Singaporean government is keeping all money in excess of the 2.5-4% CPF return from your savings.  Put yet another way, this is an implicit wealth tax on the average Singaporean worker amounting to $7,500 annually or more than 10% of per capita GDP.

The most important point is this: CPF is your money and investment returns are the investment returns of hard working Singaporean savers.  The investment returns from CPF capital and public surpluses do not belong to the government, the PAP, Temasek, or GIC but to the Singaporean people.

CPF, GIC, and Temasek returns are not the governments money.  They belong to the savers and tax payers of Singapore who have made it a great country.  Remember: this is your money.

Note 1: Part of this post is from a previous post.

Note 2: Here is a spreadsheet that details the calculations made here.

Note 3: My apologies for not writing more pertaining to Singapore recently, I have been quite busy and pulled in numerous different directions

Note 4: I have a long awaited update to my original paper on Singapore and Temasek that I am working on and hope to release before the end of the year.

The Real CPF Scam

Let me pose a not-so-hypothetical.  I am an investment manager and you have money for retirement savings you want to invest.  Like any informed consumer you ask me how much I will charge you to be the investment manager.  I reply, if you invest your money with me, I will keep most of the money you make and if I lose money, well you lose.  Would you invest your hard earned money with anyone who gave you that sales pitch?

If this one-sided deal sounds too absurd to believe then look no further than Temasek Holdings and GIC.  While there are valid unanswered questions about the returns of Temasek which have been written about in great detail, all Temasek money belongs to the citizens of Singapore not the government, executives, or other special parties.

Public surpluses and CPF capital saved by the citizens of Singapore is used to fund Temasek and GIC.  Yet, the government of Singapore only pays savers 2.5-4% despite claims of earning 7 and 17% respectively between GIC and Temasek.  That claimed 7%  earned by GIC in USD belongs to CPF savers and the people of Singapore.  The claimed 17% earned by Temasek in SGD belongs to the people of Singapore who provided the public surpluses and capital investment to build companies.

CPF contributions are borrowed to finance investment.  The CPF saver receives a guaranteed 2.5-4% while the borrowing party, GIC or Temasek receive all returns in excess of 2.5-4%.  The government via GIC and Temasek is confiscating returns that belong to CPF savers and taxpayers.

This is not an insignificant amount of money that the government of Singapore via CPF contributions is confiscating for its own use.  As I estimated here, an average Singaporean earning an average wage with CPF contributions and CPF interest would have approximately $537,000 at the end of their working career.  However, if we took those contributions and they earned GIC interest, they would now have $799,000.  If they earned the Temasek rate of return the average Singaporean would have $4 million SGD in the bank after a career of hard work.

That means that if the average Singaporean was not confined to earning below market returns in CPF savings, they would be $300,000-3,500,000 richer!  Put another way, the Singaporean government is keeping all money in excess of the 2.5-4% CPF return from your savings.  Put yet another way, this is an implicit wealth tax on the average Singaporean worker amounting to $7,500 annually or more than 10% of per capita GDP.

The most important point is this: CPF is your money and investment returns are the investment returns of hard working Singaporean savers.  The investment returns from CPF capital and public surpluses do not belong to the government, the PAP, Temasek, or GIC but to the Singaporean people.

CPF, GIC, and Temasek returns are not the governments money.  They belong to the savers and tax payers of Singapore who have made it a great country.  Remember: this is your money.