This piece is an attempt* to answer,”If Singaporeans are not “hard-driving and hard-striving”, where did GIC and Temasek get so much money to lose?”: a posting on a Temasek Review article in late 2009.
The answer parroted mindlessly by the government is that government budget surpluses mean that GIC and Temasek get money to invest with.
A more detailed explanation has to start with how the surpluses arise.
As about 43% of the working population don’t pay income tax, and VAT and other taxes are relatively low: one way the surpluses are generated is by a government being thrifty (government’s view) or mean (view of many netizens).
Economists in the private sector, and the Reform Party (the sec-gen was once an economist and he has a first-class degree from Cambridge) have argued that rather than accumulate large surpluses that are then invested abroad, the government should spend more building up Singapore’s human capital. By spending more on things like education, healthcare and consumer protection, the returns generated will be better than the returns on overseas investments.
This is an argument that has excellent academic credentials. China is often asked by eminent economists ,”Why do you export so much when you, in return, use the surplus lend to the Americans so that they can buy more from you?” The economists advise that China should invest more locally.
The government’s view is that Singapore needs the reserves as an emergency fund should things go badly wrong. The late Dr Goh Keng Swee talked of spending the reserves in a recession (as has happened recently). Dr Goh and others could also have quoted the example of Kuwait. When Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, the reserves were used to help pay for the war. And afterwards for the reconstruction of the country. They could also have cited Iceland and Dubai as countries that got into trouble because they ran out of $, when they could not borrow any more.
The second reason why surpluses occur is that our CPF monies are invested in special government bonds. The $ from the bonds flow into the government’s Consolidated Fund together with revenues from taxes etc. All government expenses are paid out from this fund. If there is a surplus (as there usually because the government is thrifty or mean depending on who is doing the talking) part of that surplus can go to GIC and Temasek. The government argues that because all the monies in the fund is fungible (cannot be separated), one is wrong to argue that CPF monies are invested abroad.
Technically and legally the government is correct, but so what is the retort? The financial effect (though not the legal consequences) is the same as if our CPF monies are directly invested abroad.
And these special bonds are the reason why S’pore is up there on a list that the local media does not ever publicise. S’pore has the 8th highest public debt to GDP ration (113.10%) in the world. Greece is 7th with 113.40. Other countries on the list above us are Zimbabwe (champion), Japan (second), Lebanon and Italy. Iceland is 9th (106.7) while Ireland is at 36 (57.7).
(Aside, could this high debt to GDP ratio be the reason why the govmin wants to force-feed GDP growth through immigration? I may explore this issue in future and I hope RP will explore the issue as something the electorate should be educated upon.)
Singapore is unique among the countries with the largest sovereign wealth funds. The other SWFs are effectively funded from oil revenues. In the case of Singapore, it could be reasonably argued, by government critics, that the funding results from the “hard-driving and hard-striving” Singaporeans who are forced to save and lend the money to the government; and from less than optimal government spending.
So the quote at the beginning of this piece has elements of the truth. And worse: one could reasonably argue that the government makes something for itself from “hard-driving and hard-striving” S’poreans. One noted local economist has said that the government is effectively pocketing the difference between the returns it gets from investing abroad and the returns it pays on our CPF accounts: a carry trade arbitrage. Borrow low and invest for higher returns.
*What with an election coming, I tot I should revise (and repost) a piece I did in December last year. The revision has been pretty extensive.