Temasek and Transparency
Wall Street Journal Asia
Feb 12, 2009
Singapore's state-owned investment fund Temasek announced a change in leadership last week to a non-Singaporean CEO. We hope his appointment heralds a new era of openness.
Temasek manages public monies, yet much of what it does is hidden from the public it aims to serve. Its stated mission is "to create and maximise long-term shareholder value as an active investor and shareholder of successful enterprises." But to what end? To support Singaporeans in times of recession, like now?
Government officials in the past said they are accumulating reserves for an unspecified "rainy day." In a speech this month, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said reserves should be used only "under dire circumstances when one-off extraordinary measures are required to ward off catastrophe or prevent irreparable damage to the economy." A spokesman tells us that, "Temasek's charter is to manage these investments independent of the Singapore government on a purely commercial basis in order to generate sustainable returns for the benefit of future generations." But who decides when to use the reserves, and under what metrics?
Temasek's murky goals are part and parcel of Singapore Inc., where the line between public and private firms is often blurred. This corporatist approach worked for Singapore in its early years -- though of course we'll never know whether the market might have done a better job. Temasek was set up in 1974 as a holding company to manage state-owned firms and has nurtured successful, world-class companies such as Singapore Airlines and DBS Group, a major bank. The current CEO, Ho Ching, is the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Today, however, Singapore needs to develop a more vibrant private sector that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation. The city-state is in the throes of the worst recession in its modern history, with GDP forecast to contract as much as 5% this year. Expatriates are fleeing and the government, for the first time, is going to tap its reserves to the tune of S$4.9 billion ($3.3 billion) to help fund a stimulus package.
But if this is the "rainy day" Temasek is there for, why not give back the fund's piles of cash to taxpayers and let Singaporeans invest their own money? As of March 31 -- its last public annual statement -- Temasek's portfolio totaled S$185 billion. During the course of a parliamentary debate Tuesday, the government announced a 31% drop in the company's net portfolio value between March 31 and November 30 last year. The decline was not unexpected, given the world financial crisis and some poorly timed investments, including $5.8 billion in Merrill Lynch and £975 million ($2 billion) in Barclays.
Temasek says it oversees its portfolio prudently. But it has never provided historical financials to back up its claim of an 18% compounded annual "total shareholder return" by "market value," nor has it released detailed results showing how money flows among its subsidiaries, the holding company and its government shareholder. Temasek outlines its compensation arrangements but doesn't say how much it pays its top executives.
Temasek is 100% government-owned and isn't required to release publicly audited financial statements. The President of Singapore must sign off on the "appointment or removal" of the CEO and board members, according to Temasek's annual report. It cannot "draw on or diminish our past reserves without the President's concurrence." So even while it is a "commercially disciplined investment firm," as the company says, Temasek still answers to the Singapore executive. This system would be more effective if Singapore boasted a more vibrant democracy with better checks and balances.
All of which makes last week's change at the top of Temasek all the more intriguing, and an opportunity. Replacing Ms. Ho in October will be American Charles "Chip" Goodyear, who will be Temasek's first foreign CEO in its 35-year history. Mr. Goodyear is a Wall Street veteran -- not always a compliment these days -- and the former head of BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining firm. He has run firms accountable to their shareholders, and run them well.
The hiring of a foreign CEO is a notable change, and we hope it's a signal that Temasek and Singapore's leaders understand the need for more transparency in the company's operations. The world is demanding more openness and accountability from sovereign-wealth funds, and the shareholder-voters of Singapore deserve nothing less.
Temasek takes severe hit
By Thanong Khanthong
Published on February 9, 2009
Ho Ching's resignation as CEO of Temasek Holdings would not cloud heavy losses of about 40 per cent at Singapore's sovereign wealth fund amid the global financial market meltdown.
The Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) is also suffering similar heavy losses.
An investment analyst in Singapore said Temasek's results will be released in April and he estimated that of its US$125 billion portfolio as of March 2008, Temasek would have lost 40 per cent, leaving it with about US$75 billion left.
As for the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore or GIC, the investment analyst said it would also lose more than a third of the value of its investment portfolio.
"GIC started the crisis with roughly Singapore $550 billion in reserves. My estimate is that it has lost about $190-$200 billion of that, leaving it with about $350 billion left. This amount is equivalent to 200 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product," he added.
"So both have lost money but their performance has not been out of line with other large funds, possibly a bit better. These are all worst-case estimates."
Ho, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong, announced last week that after almost seven years at the helm of Temasek, she would step down by October this year. She would be succeeded by Chip Goodyear, a former CEO of BHP Billiton Ltd, who would be the first foreigner to run the sovereign wealth fund.
Temasek Holdings was set up by proceeds from the privatisation of Singapore's state-owned firms, while GIC by international reserves of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Both represent the investment vehicles of Singapore, which has eyed for a global reach for its investment.
The transition is taking place at a time when Singapore is suffering the worst economic problems since 1960s. Temasek, racked a return of about 17 per cent a year since its inception in 1974 and March this year, is also going to face a drastic restructuring of its investment strategy.
Under her leadership, and also as wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsian Loong, Ho led Temasek to embark on audacious acquisitions in China, Asia, Europe and the United States. Temasek's buy-out of Shin Corp, previously owned by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in January 2006 sparked out a political turmoil inside Thailand followed by a military coup in September that same year.
Ho's resignation has also sparked a debate inside Singapore. Tharman Shangmugaratnam, the finance minister, preferred to handle the issue with a diplomatic term, saying that Ho's departure wasn't linked to the performance of Temasek's investments.
"Whether this is a way of making a change of someone who is related to the prime minister, this has been a point that I've dealt with since the first day Ho Ching was appointed as CEO. I was very instrumental in bringing in Ho Ching and it was based purely on merit and has nothing to do with her relationship to anyone," he said.
The investment analyst in Singapore said Ho's resignation was planned for about a year. "I don't think it has much to do with Temasek's performance. This is Singapore, favoured people are not made to resign for performance! I think Singapore leaders are more concerned over the Sovereign Wealth Fund issue. It becomes more difficult to defend Singapore's sovereign wealth fund as a non-state actor with no political agenda if the wife of the prime minister is running it," he said.
Singapore's economy is facing a severe downturn, with growth rate plunging into the negative territory. "We recently revised downward our GDP forecast to minus 2.8 per cent to reflect the likelihood that the contraction in the first half of 2009 could be deeper than previously expected," said Citi's Asia Economic Outlook and strategy (January 23, 2009). "Advance estimates for the fourth quarter of 2008 showed a contraction of 2.6 per cent from a year ago, down sharply from 0.3 per cent the previous quarter. On a quarter on quarter seasonally adjusted annualised rate, the fourth quarter GDP contracted 16.9 per cent - the worst on record."
Singapore has recently entered into a currency swap arrangement with the US Federal Reserve, which worked out the swap arrangements with selected countries including Brazil and Korea, to avert the financial crisis, data of the US Federal Reserve show.
Unlike Korea, which has drawn down the currency swap arrangement, Singapore has not yet drawn down the swap.
Apres Ho Ching, Le Deluge?
Feb 9, 2009
Lee Hsien Loong's wife leaves Temasek just in time for her successor to reap the bad news
Ho Ching, the wife of prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, is departing from stewardship of Temasek Holdings in good time for her successor to have to be the one in charge when the disastrous performance for 2008 and 2009 comes around.
Such are the circumstances that the Singapore leadership has decided that it is best that a foreigner replace her – not that Temasek's earlier recruitment of Wall Street whiz-kids has done it much good. This time former BHP Billiton boss Chip Goodyear just might shift Temasek's attention away from disastrous forays into finance towards the natural resources which are so abundant in Southeast Asia but so conspicuously lacking from its Temasek's portfolio.
BHP is in good shape compared with the other major mining companies such as Rio Tinto and Xstrata. But do not be deceived by this into thinking that Goodyear is the cautious, far-sighted manager needed by a sovereign wealth fund such as Temasek. BHP owes its relatively strong position largely to luck.
Goodyear, a Wharton-bred former investment banker, made his reputation through an array of acquisitions in a rising metals market. He stepped down as chief executive in September 2007, but remained with the company and close to his successor Marius Kloppers when BHP launched a typical top-of-the-market US$66 billion bid for rival miner Rio Tinto, itself then trying to digest its own acquisition spree, notably aluminum giant Alcan. Only Rio's determination to resist the takeover saved BHP from the potential disaster of such a costly acquisition and Goodyear being classified with the Wall Street crowd whose hubris and arrogance has become the biggest ever bonfire of the vanities.
Ho Ching proved the classic bull market player with Singapore's public funds. At first she could claim success in raising returns by more active management of Temasek's investment portfolio – and in rising markets always report profits generated by disposals as well as by the operating profits of its major assets, the Singapore property, banking, power, telecoms, aviation and shipping companies.
But under her leadership, and spurred by foreign advice, a larger and larger proportion of assets were invested in the financial sector. By March 2008 this had climbed to no less than 40 percent of Temasek's portfolio. Nor was that enough. It continued to believe in Wall Street's self-delusions that first half 2008 just saw a few "localized difficulties" rather than the richly deserved meltdown that occurred, increasing its stakes in Merrill Lynch, Barclays and others, and putting most of its China investments into banking.
Even as late as the end of August, a managing director, Marish Kejriwal, was being quoted as saying "The financial services industry is one we believe in… It is a proxy to the economic growth" – an extraordinary statement and one which showed that Temasek had learned nothing from the Asian crisis of a decade ago, or from Japanese financial troubles, or indeed the mid-1980s banking failure in Hong Kong and Malaysia etc. To make matters even worse, Kejriwal also noted "We recently concentrated on US and UK primarily because we see value."
Temasek's overall performance is hard to assess. Although more transparent than most sovereign wealth funds, it still falls far short of what a public company would have to report. The performance of its major listed subsidiaries is easy enough to track but there is a lot that does not appear, including methods of valuation of some huge, leveraged investments made in private equity funds.
Injections of capital from the Ministry of Finance are also a key to its expansion. For example, last financial year its portfolio value rose by 13 percent to S$185 billion but much of this was apparently accounted for by an official injection. Nor are there any details on dividends, if any, paid to the MoF.
Indeed, not only are the accounts skimpy and largely lacking in the notes normally found but anyone wishing to track the latest Annual Review against past ones will be unable to do so via the Temasek Holdings website, which now has only the latest Review (2007-08) not the previous ones.
What can be deduced, however is that reported profits last year, which zoomed 50 percent to S$20 billion on revenue of just S$83 billion, owed much to disposals, including Tuas Power for S$4.2 billion. The rundown in Singapore assets has been marked. They are now only 33 percent of the total compared with 38 percent a year earlier. This trend is presented as a necessary and valuable diversification, but it also helps maintain profits as the Singapore disposals are mostly of assets acquired years ago and thus can generate big capital gains.
Apart from the trend to non-Singapore assets, there have been two other trends. One is towards non-Asian OECD markets such as US and UK, and the other to unlisted and so-called "liquidity" investments. These mostly opaque investments now account for 52% of total assets helping to further obscure the details.
The latest Review also has a none-too-subtle Ho Ching boast. Assets acquired in the previous six years are credited in one chart with annual growth in value of 32 percent, or double the 16 percent by assets held prior to 2003. It is not hard to imagine that the numbers for 2009 will look rather different – assuming they are published. Nor was the 10-year annual Total Shareholder Return as published particularly impressive – 9 percent since the dark days of the Asian crisis.
But whatever the performance, the skimpy nature of Temasek's published data makes independent analysis very difficult – even assuming that the major brokers, rating agencies and investment banks would ever be willing to incur official wrath by attempting to do so.
As for Goodyear, even with the help of a big capital profit on the December sale of PowerSeraya to Malaysia's YTL for S$3.8 billion, his first Annual Review as Ho Ching's successor will need some remarkable accounting contortions if it is not to look grim indeed.
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