The PAP Government Took the CPF to Buy Government Bonds, without Giving Good Returns
As mentioned, since 1968, a legislation was passed for the CPF to be invested in “Singapore government securities (SGS) or Advance Deposits (which) … in effect lends members’ savings to the Government, which (note) in turn, makes the actual investment decisions.” “For a while, SGS were issued under two separate pieces of legislation. Those issued under the Government Securities Act were used to finance current expenditure and those issued under the Development Loan Act, for infrastructure development (for the construction of HDB flats, for instance).”
“Before 1987, most SGS were issued to the CPF Board as tax-free registered stock. There was no active secondary market for such securities as there were no market-makers. The SGS market (SGSM) essentially took shape only in 1987.” Edward Ng explained that “a plan was launched in 1986 to further develop the domestic financial markets … Probably in response to the recession (and) This move to activate SGSM was also meant to boost the development of a corporate bond market.”
Ng quoted “the MAS Annual Report for 1986/87″, which said that:
The consistent fiscal surplus means that the government (no longer) need to sell SGS for public financing. A Government Securities Fund holds the proceeds from SGS sales and from the way the use of the fund is regulated it is evident that deficit financing is not its main purpose. As explicitly mandated, transfers to the Consolidated Account to finance expenditure have the last priority in the use of the fund. The operational needs of the fund itself and repayment of principal and interest due on the SGS take precedence.
The PAP government thus moved from taking our CPF to predominantly fund infrastructural development to invest instead. The reason why is because Singapore has “generated persistent fiscal surpluses” and there was a lesser need to use the CPF to fund development projects.
However, “Despite the restructuring of SGSM in 1987, a large proportion of SGS outstanding continue to be held by the CPF Board, POSBank, and commercial banks. The CPF Board alone accounts for more than 70 percent of the SGS outstanding and these are largely in the form of registered stocks not traded on the secondary market.”
Because of “The requirement that the CPF Board must invest only in government bonds, (this) has contributed substantially to the large internal debt of S$134.4 billion (84.5% of GDP) in 2000. The CPF Board held three-quarters of the government’s medium-term debt, and a little over two-thirds of the total domestic debt in 2000.” Today, the debt has risen to 110.9% of GDP. This is even though the government “has been running persistently large budget surpluses over the years” and “there is no need for public debt“.
Thus “All the SGS issued to the CPF Board are solely meant to absorb the increasingly large balances of CPF balances” and “Government bonds are issued purely to meet the demand of commercial banks for their statutory reserves.”
However, “It is not possible to determine exactly how CPF savings are used for these two purposes (but it is known that) … a substantial portion has been used to acquire foreign reserves. Since 1983 CPF assets and official foreign reserves have been approximately equal. However, in only two years since 1978 official foreign reserves have grown by more than CPF assets grew.” Also, “As there is no separate accounting for the CPF savings tapped through the issue of government bonds, there is no way of determining how much of these savings is channeled into infrastructure development and how much is invested overseas.”
Even though “CPF funds are placed with the government through the purchase of SGS, it is unlikely that much of these funds are channeled into the Singapore securities markets. As a general policy, the government invests its surpluses and other public funds overseas.” Thus “To the extent that the CPF traditionally held these government stocks to maturity rather than trading them actively, it was blamed for the lack of an active secondary bond market.”
However, what is more concerning for Singaporeans is that “As a passive national custodian of pension funds, CPF is under no pressure to produce competitive returns for its members. This means that it does not need to actively trade to maximize the yield on its funds.” As can be seen, the CPF interest rates were driven down from a high of 6.5% in 1985 to the lowest at 2.5% today.
Indeed, Ng shared an anecdotal experience that when “A bank officer, asked about the possibility of investments in SGS with CPF savings, expressed surprise. He did not see why anyone would consider investing in SGS given their low yields. He explained that the SGS market is illiquid and specific issues may have to be specially sourced. In his own words, “we get an enquiry from an individual about investing in SGS only once in a blue moon.”
There are several important ways in which the current pension arrangements affect efficiency. The first concerns the efficiency of the savings / investment process. Under current arrangements, the government controls the bulk of the nation’s flow and stock of savings. The investment of CPF savings in non-marketable government bonds does not permit these savings to be allocated according to market forces, and hampers the development of financial and capital markets. The subsequent use of these savings by government investment companies in a non-transparent and non-accountable manner is contrary to good governance practices of pension funds; and they have the potential to undermine investment discipline.
The PAP Government Used Our CPF to Earn High Interests in the GIC but Does Not Return Them
But where does our CPF eventually go to? Prior to May this year, the PAP government has refused to admit to where they are taking our CPF to eventually invest.
However, back in 1986, the CPF Study Group led by Professor Lim Chong Yah had already revealed that, “Funds raised through the issuance of government bonds are joined with government reserves and the funds entrusted by other government bodies to MAS, and later the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, for management.”
In fact, it was explained by Associate Professor Linda Low that “With surplus government and public sector budgets since the late 1970s, CPF’s reserves as part of public sector surplus have been co-mingled with other investment either domestically by Temasek Holdings Ltd or abroad by the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) which plausibly earn more than 2.5 per cent in rate of return.”
So, this was known way back in 1986, but why did the PAP government keep denying that they take our CPF to invest in the GIC?
GIC was set up because Dr Goh Keng Swee had felt that, “Singapore would have chronic surpluses because of its prudent fiscal policy and high savings rate of the country (and) These surpluses would result in accumulation of reserves in excess of what was needed for managing the exchange rate. Hence, there should be two pools of reserves – one to be managed by MAS, the other to be managed by a new investment management organisation with a long-term orientation. The former needed to concentrate on holdings of liquid assets with short maturities to allow MAS to respond quickly to market conditions and switch large amounts between currencies, especially in an environment of increasingly volatile interest and exchange rates. The latter, however, could focus more on investments that would yield good long-term returns, such as equities.”
“Dr Goh kept the management of short-term assets under MAS’ control, allowing it to manage the exchange rate with a prudent buffer. But excess reserves, including those managed by the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore, were transferred to a newly established organisation – The Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) (which) was incorporated on 22 May 1981, with an authorised capital of S$2 million.”
However, Linda Low had also revealed that when the GIC was set up, it was set up with “S$345 million in thirty-six companies“. If so, which companies were these and were they set up with the development funds funded by our CPF? Were they returned?
Paul Yip also illustrated how the CPF interacted with the Singapore economy and how this helped to very quickly generate the surpluses in Singapore, via the conduit of the PAP government’s central control:
Between the economy and the Singapore government is the CPF Board which receives the net CPF contribution from residents in Singapore and uses the proceeds to purchase bonds from the government. The government bond interest payment is then used by the CPF Board to cover the (lower) interest payments due to the CPF contributors and the Board’s administrative costs. As the net CPF contribution (plus the budget surplus) is currently much greater than the interest payments, there is a substantial liquidity drain from the economy to the government. As explained, the Singapore government has to re-inject liquidity (in S$) back to the economy through the MAS’s foreign exchange operation, which would also provide the foreign exchanges (or foreign reserves) for the Singapore government to invest overseas through, say, the Singapore Government Investment Corporation (SGIC). This would in turn generate interest (in foreign currencies) to Singapore’s foreign reserves.
The next thing that needs explanation is on where the economy gets the substantial amount of foreign exchanges with the MAS. As we can see from the chart, there is a substantial amount of net CPF contribution from the economy to the CPF Board (mainly because of the relatively young population distribution in Singapore). This significant net CPF contribution implies that Singapore residents are consuming much lower than what they are earning, which in turn implies Singapore is importing far less than its exports. That is, the forced savings due to the CPF system and the current account surplus in Singapore, which would in turn provide the economy the net foreign exchange receipts for the exchange of the re-injected liquidity from the MAS. In fact, … the rapid rise in Singapore’s foreign reserves over the past two decades was mainly due to the high current account surplus implied by the huge net CPF contribution.
Thus, the high net CPF contribution (and hence the current account surplus) helps to explain why Singapore’s foreign reserves can grow so fast over the past two decades.
As such, it is clear that the GIC is able to grow, only because of our the growth of our CPF, and not only that, because of the PAP government’s manipulation of the policies pertaining to our CPF which enabled them to siphon off even more CPF to the GIC.
However, the channelling of CPF into GIC is problematic because “CPF balances are invested primarily by the Singapore Government Investment Corporation (SGIC), whose legal status is that of a private limited company – removing it from parliamentary or public scrutiny. This arrangement has not provided members with high enough real returns to capture the power of compound interest.” So, “While CPF members know their account balances, they do not know the basis or performance of investment decisions and there is no correspondence between investment returns and member returns.”
And because “By statutory provision, SGIC does not have to reveal their financial performance and activities, … CPF members are not provided information on the ultimate investments of their balances.”
There is, however, no transparency or public accountability concerning where these funds are invested, and what has been the investment criteria and performance. The GIC and other relevant government investment agencies are protected by statutory provisions from making any disclosure, even to the Parliament. The Elected President, who is mandated to protect Singapore’s reserves, also has limited access to the operations of these investment agencies.
Again, the question remains – why is the PAP government so addicted to the use of our CPF, so much so that they are so desperate to grow the GIC? Or from another perspective, why is the PAP government so keen to earn so much in the GIC, that they allowed their (in)sanity over the use of our CPF to take over?
Singaporeans Are Paying Tax on Our CPF
Asher and Singh also explained that, “To the extent GIC earns higher returns on CPF balances than credited to members, there is an implicit tax on CPF wealth which is both recurrent, highly regressive, and often quite large. The GIC has publicly announced that it earned annually returns in Singapore $ of 8.2% for the 25-year period ending in March 2006; the inflation adjusted return was 5.3% per annum. The difference between what GIC has earned and what the CPF members receive is a recurrent annual tax on CPF wealth (which) … is only partly mitigated by the guaranteed floor interest rate of 2.5 percent.”
According to Asher, he reiterated that, “This vividly illustrates how political risks and non-transparency can arise in an individual account system.”
The PAP government might routinely claim that “the Government bears the risk of GIC’s investment returns“, so that “CPF members bear no investment risk at all” but to which Yasue Pai said, “So while CPF members are sheltered from investment risks, the downside is that members are deprived of the opportunity to reap higher returns. On the other hand, although the actual investments in the GIC portfolio are not disclosed, given the long term nature of CPF assets, the government can maximize return by managing long term risk. It is therefore questionable whether there is a justification for not sharing these high returns from the forced savings of its citizens … Furthermore, as the balance of GIC is widely believed to be invested abroad, in addition to not benefiting from the higher returns that SGIC earns, CPF members also miss out on the potential benefits of having their savings invested in the domestic market, including higher levels of corporate governance and overall economic growth.”
Linda Low added that, “Even on the most conservative estimate, the GIC and Temasek could return the government 3 per cent in real terms, double that in nominal terms. Yet, the CPF has paid its members 2.5 per cent nominal interest rate on their ordinary accounts since 1955, (and only) four per cent on special accounts when the government decided to realign social security saving for old age rather than housing.”
To which, Asher explained that this 2.5% interest that Singaporeans earn on our CPF is thus invaluable because “As the long-term annual inflation rate in Singapore is about 3.0 percent, the guarantee does not even preserve the principal in real terms. Guarantees of principal, even in real terms, are cheap for a portfolio which is divided equally between equities and bonds.”
Asher and Singh also estimated that with what “The GIC has publicly announced that it earned annual returns (in Singapore dollars) of 4.5% in 2008, but CPF returns were 1.2%, [t]he difference could (thus) be construed as a recurrent annual tax on CPF wealth (where the) estimated tax (would be) S$4.98 billion [(4.5–1.2) x S$151 billion in member balances in 2008, 69% of net CPF contributions during 2008 or 92% of the net tax assessed on residents in 2008.” They emphasised thus that, “In estimating Singapore’s household tax burden, this implicit tax should be included.”
With that, Asher admonished the PAP government’s practice by saying that, “The above discussion suggests that Singapore’s method of investing the balances meant for retirement financing is contrary to best international practices concerning pension fund management, and have the potential to generate high political risk. Such concentration of savings in the hands of non-transparent, non-accountable agencies also distorts the savings investment process and could lead to inefficiencies in the structure of asset returns. The development of the financial and capital markets may also be adversely affected due to such concentration of savings, and due to the use of CPF as a substitute for mortgage financing. The method, however, is consistent with Singapore’s mono-centric power structure, and strong tendency towards social engineering and control.”
Phang Sock-Yong also criticised the PAP government’s over-involvement in the savings industry, describing how “the ‘remarkably poorly developed’ status of Singapore’s savings industry (contrasts) against its high savings rate. ‘Financial planners, unit trusts, stock brokers, pension funds, pension advisors, wealth management associated with middle-class households, financial journals, etc are all under-represented in Singapore compared to say Hong Kong.’ It has also been observed that the debt market in Singapore has remained relatively unsophisticated and illiquid due primarily to the cash rich public sector and the dominance of MNCs that typically do not depend on domestic sources of capital.”
She also explained how a similar stagnation of the Singapore housing market has developed due to the PAP government’s monopoly as a housing developer, via the over-use of our CPF monies: “A similar observation can be made with regard to the mortgage sector. While the housing loans to GDP ratio has exceeded 70 percent, more than half of outstanding housing loans are originated by the HDB which in turn obtains mortgage funding loans from the government. The HDB is not a financial institution while the CPF is described as a non-bank financial institution. The size of the mortgage market as such is smaller than one would expect, given the high loan to GDP ratio. The mortgage sector’s linkages with capital markets are weak and mortgage instruments relatively unsophisticated – there is no secondary mortgage market.”
Finally, Linda Low explained that:
Co-mingled CPF and Monetary Authority of Singapore funds invested by the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore can neither be good investment nor management strategy as returns and performance cannot be effectively tracked and institutional and agency investment policy objectives dictated de facto by government. The CPF as a retirement fund has distinct needs and goals. In whatever manner the government has provisioned for CPF operational expenses, the intransparent system in not a matter of good governance, accountability and absolute stewardship in the interest of CPF members…. On the other side of the balance, the centralised system suffers from low rates of returns not so much due to poor investments as implicit taxation of returns, with as much as a 3 per cent differential as alluded. Mandatory investments means social security funds are held hostage to budgetary needs and politically determined investment decisions, which can also impede development of new financial instruments.”
Temasek Holdings Takes Our CPF to Invest But Pretends It Doesn’t
In June this year, Temasek Holdings also denied that they manage our CPF monies.
But as explained, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said that, “about $400 million dollars worth of assets in the form of a set of companies” and as shown, these companies were funded by Singaporeans’ CPF monies and which were later transferred to Temasek Holdings when privatised, which in effect means that Temasek Holdings did manage CPF funds!
Indeed, Lixia Loh explained that “Temasek was set up in 1974 with surpluses from the Ministry of Finance, (and) was set up to take over state-owned enterprises and develop key industries, while the government focused on policy-making and administration.”
In fact, “In the early days of Temasek’s operation, the focus was to develop key industries in Singapore to reinvent the government-linked corporations (GLCs) (those initially held by the government such as Singapore Airlines, Singapore Telecom (which is Singtel today), Neptune Orient Lines, etc). In 1985 Singapore Airlines was listed and Singapore Mass Rapid Transit was incorporated,” of which the funds for their development came from our CPF.
This is evident in how the Minister for Labour and Communications had explained that. “CPF savings form a large portion of Singapore’s savings. These savings are used for capital formation which means the construction of new factories, installation of new plant and equipment, expansion of infrastructure such as roads,’ ports and telecommunications, the building of houses and so on. These facilities coupled with Singapore’s economic and political stability have in turn attracted large amounts of investments each year. These again go into the setting up of more businesses, factories and enterprises.”
Most of these GLCs were “Mainly set up in the 1960s and 70s, these companies were established to assist in the development of certain sectors. In the 80s, GLCs were also formed through corporatizating previous government departments and statutory boards.”
These “government companies, statutory boards, their subsidiaries, and other public enterprises were directly or indirectly held by the three major investment holding companies wholly owned by the Singapore Government: Temasek Holding Ltd; Shengli Holdings Ltd; and Ministry of National Development Holding Ltd. They will sell their equity to the private sector gradually throughout the privatization process. Among them, Temasek Holding Pte Ltd, set up in 1974 has the most financial interest in those companies, which is now commonly termed as government-linked companies (GLCs).”
And when “Singapore began privatizing its state corporations by late 1980s, … Temasek Holdings Ltd, the investment arm of Singapore’s government now has share ownership in most partially divested companies termed as Government-Linked Companies or GLCs, such as SingTel, DBS, Singapore Technologies, etc.”
Because of this, Temasek Holdings became embroiled, “at the center of controversial debates between local and foreign private enterprises, due to unsatisfactory divestment progress and alleged unfair competition by the GLCs.”
Listing Government companies on the Stock Exchange is not privatization. Privatization means washing its hands off business and ceasing to compete with the private sector. Listing a Government company on the Stock Exchange is certainly a clever idea of raising funds from the public to finance the operations of Government companies which otherwise would be in receipt either of subsidies or loans from the Government. But that is not privatization as most people believe it to be.
The Government already plays a regulatory role in the operations of the Stock Exchange. But should it also lend itself to fears that with so many Government counters listed, it would also play in the market? This is not a rhetoric question. In 1984, there was the affair between Keppel, a Government company, and Jardine Fleming. The Government on that occasion bailed out Keppel and applied its clout on Jardine Fleming. Unlike private companies, Government companies have access to authorities, either direct access or through the old boy network when other private companies do not. With interest rates at an all time low and excess liquidity, surplus funds are moving not into productive enterprises but into the Stock Exchange. Price earning ratios are so high that they have no relationship with the actual performance of the companies themselves. Like stock exchanges around the world, Singapore’s stock market has a life of its own, seemingly independent of the actual economy. The Government has intervened in the market through releasing CPF funds for purchases of trustee stocks which include, of course, Government companies’ stocks. And there can be no assurance that the Government will not intervene in the future. It has intervened by closing the Stock Exchange for three days in 1985. The temptation for future intervention is the greater as more Government companies become partially listed on the Exchange. Partial listing of Government companies on the Stock Exchange is not privatization. I would rather have them sold off altogether or keep them as private companies.
Did the government applied the same pressure again on Singaporeans’ POSB during the merger with DBS in 1998?
Indeed, Phang Sock-Yong explained that Singapore’s “economy (is) dominated by multinational enterprises and State-controlled firms (where) These firms have traditionally enjoyed significant control over resources (for example about 85 percent of Singapore’s land area is owned by the State and there is no constitutional or common law right to land ownership) and significant monopoly power.”
It might thus not be a coincidence that Singapore is thus ranked 5th on The Economist’s crony capitalism index, where it is the 5th easiest place in the world “where politically connected businessmen are most likely to prosper”.
And it is perhaps not accidental that this has resulted in Singapore becoming the most expensive place to live in, in the world, through the PAP government’s unilateral driving up of the prices and the depression of wages.
Unfortunately, there was not enough people with the balls to stand up to the PAP government’s tyranny, which allowed them to continue ramping their way through for the next 30 years. Singaporeans need to know that they cannot wait for someone else to do something – we have to do things for ourselves.
Again, Temasek Holdings might want to deny that they do not take our CPF to invest. However, “In April 2004, a constitutional amendment … allowed the government to transfer reserves to key statutory boards and companies, and the transfer of reserves among them with the approval of the president, was introduced. Temasek Holdings has (also) acknowledged that it can access the reserves.” If so, it is quite certainly clear that the Temasek Holdings does take our CPF to use (as our CPF is put into the reserves).
Also, now we know that the PAP government has thoroughly sapped up a significant amount of our CPF to fund the HDB both for its construction and its purchase. Now, “In July 2003, in a major restructuring exercise, the HDB’s 3000 strong Building and Development Division was re-organized and the HDB Corporation Private Limited (HDB Corp) set up as a fully-owned subsidiary of HDB. In November 2004, HDB divested its 100 percent shareholding in HDB Corp to the government’s investment holding company, Temasek Holdings. HDB Corp has been assigned responsibility for the design and development of all HDB projects until June 2006. The subsidiaries of HDB Corp now include the Surbana group of companies which have also ventured into housing development projects overseas.”
So, can the Temasek Holdings pretend to be innocent about not having used our CPF to invest?
Meanwhile, Ho Ching, the CEO of Temasek Holdings and the Singapore current prime minister’s wife and the previous prime minister’s daughter-in-law, said, “While the Minister for Finance (Incorporated) is our formal shareholder, we recognise that the ultimate shareholders of Temasek are the past, present and future generations of Singapore.”
Former Finance Minister Richard Hu had also once said that the reserves are owned by Singaporeans.
Indeed, the book ‘Reforming Corporate Governance in Southeast Asia’ had illustrated how the citizens of Singapore are the rightful and ultimate shareholders of Temasek Holdings, as Ho Ching herself has admitted.
If so, why has Temasek become a “exempt private company” and the GIC a “private limited company” which are not required to furnish full reports on what it is doing with Singaporeans’ monies to us? Why did the PAP government convert GIC and Temasek Holdings into private limited entities, where Singaporeans are prevented to know how they are taking our CPF monies to use?
Now that we have established that the GIC and Temasek Holdings have indeed taken our CPF for their investments and not return what should rightfully belong to us, when we look back at how the GIC and Temasek Holdings have lost $117 billion in 2008, or 77.5% of the value of our CPF balance in 2008, then there becomes a glaring mischief that has been done to Singaporeans’ CPF!
Why was the CPF Minimum Sum spiked upwards in 2008 with no rhyme or reason? And if so, how were the fund transfers done, if any, from our CPF to the GIC and Temasek Holdings? There is a complete lack of transparency as to how this is done and the PAP government’s lack of accountability in this is not only shocking but downright unreasonable.
Should we hold ourselves to such malignant behaviour?
Thus in truth, “the main concern in Singapore is not that the provident fund balances controlled by the CPF board do not benefit from the international diversification. The main concern is that members are not benefiting from such diversification. They also do not have information about the ultimate investment of their balances. Moreover, the government investment management companies make losses; it is the CPF member in their capacity as taxpayers who will need to bear the financial burden of potential losses. Thus, the contingent liability is borne by them, but without the benefit of transparency or accountability.”
Singaporeans Might Lose $7 Trillion to the PAP Government
But what does this mean for individual Singaporeans and our CPF, when the CPF is taken by the GIC and not returned in full to Singaporeans?
As I had written, a Singaporean aged 25 who starts work today at $1,000 and works for the next 30 years until 55 will lose nearly $300,000, including for what he/she has to pay for land costs for his/her flat (of which the land he/she doesn’t own, nor the flat).
For a Singaporean who starts work at the median income of about $3,000, he/she will lose almost $750,000.
Leong Sze Hian has calculated how a Singaporean aged 21 who starts work today at $1,500 and works until 65 will lose more than $1.5 million.
And for a Singaporean who starts at $3,000, he/she will lose more than $3 million.
Professor Christopher Balding has calculated that a Singaporean who earns the average wage from 198o to 2011 would have lost more than $260,000.
And if we are to take the example of how if the CPF is invested in the Temasek Holdings and the returns not fully returned, a Singaporean would have lost nearly $4 million!
Thus depending on how you look at it, the average Singaporean would lose between $700,000 to $3 million to the Singapore government, or as much as more than 50% of what we should rightfully earn!
And if you look at this from the resident workforce of 2.1 million people, Singaporeans might possibly be losing as much as $7 trillion in total!
Indeed, because of how the PAP government takes our CPF and gives it to the GIC and Temasek Holdings cheaply to use, the GIC and Temasek Holdings are now ranked the 8th and 10th largest sovereign wealth funds in the world.
Meanwhile, Singaporeans have one of the least adequate retirement funds in the world.
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