Blogger Roy Ngerng, who is facing a defamation suit for alleging that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had misappropriated CPF funds, asked several questions pertaining to the management of CPF funds at a forum yesterday.

The forum on CPF and Retirement Adequacy, organised by think tank Institute of Policy Study (IPS),  was attended by academics, economists, fund experts as well as representatives of social and public organisations. 

However, Ngerng probably felt that DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam did not adequately address all his questions.

Below are the questions posed by Ngerng:

 

Here’s a transcript of their exchange after Ngerng posed the questions.

DPM Tharman: “Roy, you are going too fast. Can you repeat your last and fifth point please?”

Roy repeated his last question.

DPM Tharman: “I’ve gotten all the questions. There is no about turn unless you U-turn” (to laughter in the crowd)

DPM Tharman proceeded to take two more questions from the audience.

DPM Tharman: “I’ll start with Roy Ngerng’s points. First, a few factual matters; you asked some factual questions. Did Temasek manage the CPF funds in the past? No. It has never managed CPF funds. Temasek started off with a set of assets which were transferred by the Government at time of inception. I don’t have the exact figure in my head – but about $400 million dollars worth of assets in the form of a set of companies. It has never received CPF monies to invest.

What was the case in the early days, before we amended the constitution in 1992, is that CPF monies, which were invested in Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGS), could be used by the Government to finance infrastructure – such as road infrastructure, Singapore’s economic infrastructure and social infrastructure. Just like (other) Singapore Government Securities (SGS), the Government was allowed to use borrowings in addition to the revenues it got in its budget, to finance infrastructural investments. That was the old system.

That changed in 1992. Together with Constitutional amendments, we introduced the new Government Securities Act, which disallowed the Government from using borrowings for spending. From then onwards, all borrowings – the SGS, SSGS – have had to be invested.

How are they invested? Prior to the formation of the GIC, it was the MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore). It was an old-fashioned, central bank investment system. Dr Goh (Keng Swee) changed that, explained why, explained that these are basically longer-term assets, and we should invest them for the longer term. And a significant chunk of reserves that were managed by the MAS were passed back to the Government, which then had the GIC manage them.

So that was the system in the old days; the MAS manages the CPF assets, but after the GIC was set up in the early 1980s, it was essentially the GIC that manages CPF assets – but not as CPF assets. It is managing Government assets: managing all Government assets put together.

Which brings me to the next question about whether GIC knows it is managing CPF assets. GIC knows it is managing Government assets. That is the Government’s mandate for the GIC. The mandate is irrespective of the sources of funds it manages, which comprise the SSGS, the SGS, Government surpluses, the proceeds from land sales – all Government funds.

And the GIC (hence) pays no regard to what the source of funds is. It just has to meet its mandate: to invest for the long term, take risks, in the hope of achieving good long-term returns, significantly about global inflation.

And that is a real strength of our system. The real strength of our system is that besides the CPF, we have unencumbered Government assets – Government assets that don’t have liabilities like the CPF. And the GIC is therefore able to invest, blind to where the funds come from. It’s able to invest the whole pool of funds for the long term. If the GIC was just managing CPF funds as a CPF fund manager, it would be managed quite differently. To provide a guaranteed interest rate of four to five per cent of the Special Account, or 2.5 to 3.5 per cent of the Ordinary Account, capital guaranteed and interest rate guaranteed, it would be a very different fund that it would be managing.

It would be invested largely in bond securities, and earning returns that are very different from what it is able to earn by investing for the long term in higher-risk assets. Plus, it would mean the interest rates that the Government has committed to would be unsustainable, because it is no longer possible to earn these interest rates on a guaranteed basis, using a bond portfolio. It’s very difficult.

So the GIC manages a pool of Government assets, irrespective of sources of the funds. It is the Government that then takes the risk. The Government takes the risk that the performance of the GIC from year to year, sometimes even over five-year periods, may not be adequate for it to meet commitments to the CPF. But the Government balance sheet takes the risk to ensure that we can meet those commitments.

And that’s the strength of the system. The strength of the system is we have assets that exceed our liabilities, that enable us to meet our commitments. And that’s why we’re not just triple-A-rated, but we’re able to provide CPF members with a very fair return on a guaranteed basis.

That’s the system. For the GIC as the manager, it is blind to the sources of funds, because of our strength of having assets significantly in excess of liabilities. GIC managers do not need to know exactly where the funds come from because that’s not part of their mandate. There’s no mystery to that.

Next question had to do with excess returns. The GIC publishes five-year, 10-year, 20-year returns. You can look at the returns, and they are easily computed into Singapore dollars. Over the last five years it earned 0.5 per cent in Singapore dollar terms, over the last 10 years it earned five per cent in Singapore dollar terms, over the last 20 years it earned five per cent in Singapore dollar terms. So those are the facts, but that’s not returns gained from investing CPF monies. That’s returns gained from investing all Government assets including the unencumbered assets; it’s returns gained from investing in higher-risk portfolios for the long term. If it was just CPF monies, it will be a different portfolio and a different set of returns. Every serious financial professional knows that.

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In short, it appears that DPM Tharman addressed Ngerng’s first two questions in a comprehensive manner and gave much thought into explaining how GIC manages the CPF funds.

However, Ngerng was right that DPM Tharman did not adequately address the third question. 

DPM Tharman also replied to the fourth question in his initial remark.

In conclusion, we give DPM Tharman 60.14% for his efforts in addressing Ngerng’s four questions. 

 

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