Are we drawing down the national reserves too fast? With President Halimah’s assent, Singapore is withdrawing another eye-popping $31 billion from its reserves to fund Covid-19 support packages, you may justifiably wonder: “Is there a limit to this?” By now, Singapore has used close to $100 billion from its reserves to fight the “deepest economic crisis since Singapore’s Independence”. That is nearly 20% of Singapore’s GDP!
Does this affect you can me? Of course, because there is no free lunch.
If you look abroad, global central banks are printing money like there’s no tomorrow. And so, it seems reasonable to ask, “Why can’t we do the same? Why must we deplete our own hard-earned savings?”
With the zero interest rate environment, why didn’t the government simply issue a “Fortitude Bond” and raise funds? After all, there is no shortage of yield-hungry investors who desperately want to lend money to our AAA government.
What is Singapore’s future? How can we get out of this economic trough?
Let’s discuss this today…
The Singapore government is not allowed to borrow to spend
Have you ever wondered, if Singapore has an annual GDP of $424 billion but the gross debt is much higher than GDP at $778 billion, then why do we still have a AAA crediting rating?
It may sound strange, but both the country’s Constitution and the Government Securities Act prevent the Singapore government from spending any funds raised through debt securities.
When the government wants to build housing or new roads, they have their respective agencies issue the bonds. That is why you may have heard of HDB bonds and LTA bonds.
The Singapore government borrows to invest
The real Singapore government debts are only in the following forms:
- Singapore Savings Bonds (SSB)
- Singapore Government Securities (SGS)
- Special Singapore Government Securities (SSGS)
- Treasury bills
Singapore does not borrow to fund fiscal policies (like fighting COVID-19), they borrow to invest. And the investment manager is none other than GIC.
It is worth noting that the CPF interest that you received is guaranteed by Special Singapore Government Securities, which is managed by GIC as well. And the following chart shows how GIC invests your money.
There is also some hearsay that Temasek invests our CPF money. However, this is incorrect. Temasek does not invest the government’s money. Given the good reputation, they have their own way of sourcing for cheap funds. The popular Astrea bond is a good example.
Why don’t we just print money?
We need to understand that there is no free lunch. When a government digs into its reserves, someone has to pay back. The government either has to depend on fantastic investment returns or collect it from the nation through taxes and other revenues.
The government understands our concerns and before you ask, they have assured Singaporeans that the planned GST hike to 9% will be postponed to 2025. But that makes people more worried about how are we going to plug this big hole.
In today’s financial world, people are increasingly embracing the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). It essentially says that since the government is the monopoly issuer of a country’s currency, the government does not need taxes or borrowings since they can just print money to fund their fiscal spending.
If we look at the US stock market, it seems that printing money is the elixir and I have seen people propose that the Singapore government do the same. And I fully support the government NOT doing it. The economic impact is a complex topic which needs a book to explain, but I will just talk about the moral hazard.
You see, when you are in the US system, you run the country for 4 years and you don’t give a damn about what will happen to the next President. Only when a government believes that they will serve the country for the long term, do they have a long term plan.
Have you wondered why with all the political and military tensions, and the crashing of stock markets, the gold price is stagnating at its current level despite the US having printed trillions of dollars?
Singapore does not have such a luxury. The fact that you can still buy your daily necessities at a reasonable price today is because of our prudent monetary policy. (This is a topic for another day)
Never let a good crisis go to waste
According to this article, Singapore withdrew $49 billion from its reserves to fund the Budget during the Global Financial Crisis. Now, Singapore has withdrawn more than double this. Is this too much or unnecessary? I don’t know. Maybe the government has seen something that we don’t see.
But if we take a step back, we will realize that the world was already very fragile before the coronavirus hit us. Having a decade of low-interest-rate environments, there are many “zombie companies” who are heavily indebted but not generating positive cash flows. However, these companies occupy precious resources and human talents in our society, which can be otherwise used for a better, healthier economy.
For example, in the US, senior management officials are more interested in inflating their company’s share prices than allocating the budget for productivity and innovation. Back at home, companies are pouring their earnings into the property market instead of expanding the business.
I still recall the shock when I heard Popular bookstore went into the property business many years ago (they are already delisted now). By now, a lot more companies have done the same: SPH, Singpost, Keppel, etc. And the gradual decline of their share prices over the years shows that not only the value of the companies was destroyed, but the Singapore market as a whole.
Singapore, one of the “Four Asian Tigers”, has lost its shine in the financial market in this decade. Some years ago, I wrote an article alerting that delisting will become a new norm in Singapore’s stock market. For good or bad, many companies have left SGX. You have SMRT, KeppelLand, OSIM, Super, Breadtalk, and most recent Perennial Real Estate delisting offer.
In a recent article about REITs, I pointed out that the Singapore REITs index has outperformed the Straits Times Index over the past few years and this is nothing to be proud of. Is the S&P 500 dominated by REITs performance? Is the Shanghai composite index dominated by REITs performance?
Since the 1990s, Japan has used taxpayer’s money to continue supporting failing companies. They printed enormous amounts of money, keeping interest rates low for decades, and look where they are today. When I was young, “made in Japan”, Japanese cartoons and pop music were the “in” thing, I doubt the new generation have any clue about these. Today, the Bank of Japan is the largest shareholder of Japan’s stock market. And yes, Japan has one of the most established REITs markets in the world too.
Winston Churchill famously said,
Never let a good crisis go to waste.
Singapore has this “two-key system” of protecting past reserves, Singapore also has the Government Security Act to prevent imprudent borrowing. But the coronavirus changed everything. I am no economic expert and I understand the tough decisions that the policymakers have to make. All I hope is that with hundreds of billions of dollars on hand, the government not only tries to survive the crisis but also takes the opportunity to reboot Singapore’s economy.
What do you say? How do you think the budget can be wisely spent? Leave your comment below.
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