Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Terengganu’s ‘Sovereign Wealth Fund’ is anything but

“The country’s first state-established sovereign wealth fund, Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA), with an initial fund of RM11bil, has identified several high-impact investment projects in the tourism, energy and agriculture sectors in the state and around the country,” reports the Star today, Tuesday May 19.

Unfortunately, as with most financial-related topics associated with the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, there are far more questions than answers. Here are just three big ones, to start off with:

1) First, funding. TIA will reportedly raise RM5bn in bonds backed by a federal government guarantee. PM Najib reportedly said “There’s no money involved” (The Edge Daily, May 19). Hello? Has he been keeping up to-date on the multi-billion ringgit Klang Port scandal which involved dubiously granted government guarantees?

The bigger question though, is why TIA needs a government guarantee in the first place. TIA will also reportedly have RM6bn ‘raised through the assignment to TIA of some of the future oil royalties due to the state.” RM6bn is already a huge some of money to start off with. Why the rush to add RM5bn of federal government-guaranteed debt on top of that?

2) Second, objectives. TIA chief executive officer and former executive partner at Accenture, Shahrol Halmi said, “The key objectives of TIA’s investment strategy are … ensure the development of long-term sustainable economic and social programmes for the state.”

Elsewhere in the world, the whole point of sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) is to invest windfall gains from high resource prices wisely, OUTSIDE the home country. SWFs came about because resource-rich countries found that their own economies were too small to effectively deploy all the income coming in from their trade surpluses. Rather than have too much money chasing to few goods, leading to unproductive investments and domestic property price inflation, countries such as Norway chose to set up SWFs in order to effectively invest the money overseas for a rainy day.

Over here, TIA is proposing to invest within Terengganu. Yes, a major political issue is the people of oil-rich Terengganu do not appear to have reaped any benefits from record-high oil prices. But, that’s an issue with the BN federal and state government delivery mechanism. How does TIA fit in with the local government? In fact, the presence of TIA could actually deter investment by private investors, as it could be perceived that TIA will be given undue advantages. SWFs should have no business in their home countries!

3) Third, accountability. Media reports say TIA will have a “triple-tier check and balance system comprising the board of directors, a board of advisers and a senior management team.” I say a system is only as good as its people. Note that the board of advisers will include the Prime Minister or the Finance Minister, in his stead. Far better if politicians stay out completely and leave it to professionals.

Also, the best accountability is via public disclosure. Dare we hope that TIA will adopt best practices as per the Government Pension Fund of Norway? (Contrary to its name, this fund is entirely funded by surplus wealth from Norwegian petroleum income – no government guarantees! – and is professionally managed). I invite you to check their website. Information including ALL the shares held by the fund are available for quick and easy download!

I have other issues, including the so-called “experienced personnel” involved in running the fund. Right now, the list is very narrow and, by accident or design, seems to consist primarily of one ethnic group only. I know for a fact, having worked for MNCs, that financial services talent encompasses the entire globe from Caucasians to sub-continent Indians to mainland Chinese. If TIA truly intends to be world-class, its hiring policies need to be world-class too.

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