atans1

Oh what a tangled web we weave: MRT, ComfortDelgro and the Government

In Infrastructure on 02/03/2012 at 5:58 am

According to the Christian doctrine of the trinity, there is only one God but God is three persons: the Father, the Son ( Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. But each person is God, whole and entire.

Well our public transport system is some sort of trinity: the government*, ComfortDelgro and SMRT. Except while they are legally separate entities, in practice there is a kind of blending. This makes the Christian doctrine of the trinity easy to understand by comparison.

I’ll use the flow of funds between the companies and the government to illustrate an example of S’pore’s unique trinity at work. Using back-of-the envelope calculations and figures in annual reports, since it was listed SMRT (over a decade ago) has paid S$562.79m in dividends to Temasek, and ComfortDelgro has paid the S’pore Labour Foundation (a statutory board affiliated to the NTUC) dividends of  S$150.46m*since 2003 (Comfort and Delgro merged in 2003, and SLF had a stake in Comfort). The amount that ended up with the government was S$713.25m, with SMRT contributing 79%. But ComfortDelgro is likely be the main beneficiary of the S$1.1bn bus plan**, given that, at present, SBS Transit (a listed co 75% owned by ComfortDelgro) provides most of the buses. Taz an example of how messed up things are.

The funds’ flows also show that the government is putting back all the dividends it received from these two companies and then adding 35% more. So it’s wrong to say that the SMRT and ComfortDelgro are getting free lunches. At most the government is subsidising their lunches by 35%.

The government should get credit for ploughing its share of the “loot” (as the proponents of nationalisation would put it and MPs Puthu, PAP, and PritamS, WP, might put it), but it doesn’t. Taz how messed up are.

(Incidentally, one could reasonably argue that the other shareholders — and the minority shareholders of SBS Transit, remember ComfortDelgro owns around 75% – are getting a free lunch while the government returns its share of the dividends. But let’s not get into that today.)

What a mess. Even the government implicitly accepts that the present “rojak” system of organising the public transport here is not something that it would have introduced, if it had been prescient:

– it is is now planning to publicly funding the bus fleets of Comfort Delgro and SMRT with S$1.1bn; and

– in 2009, the then transport minister, a private sector PAP “catch” (“retired’ after the 2011 general election when the WP almost won the GRC he was helming) that joined the government was trying to fix the system while not admitting that the system was broken even then. (Thank Alex Au’s write-up on this for reminding us what that minister said in 2009.)

So it is no surprise that the the WP’s call in its 2011 general election manifesto to nationalise the public transport system**** is getting a lot of support (the nationalisation, not the WP’s call) from netizens. There may be merit in a nationalised public transport system: instead of being run for shareholders who are only interested in profits, and dividends, the system is run for the benefit of commuters. One of these days, I may run through the arguments. But don’t hold your breath. I think the debate is sterile as it all depends on one’s assumptions and definitions.

Sorry, back to the “rojak” system:  in the short-term, there is a problem of overcrowded buses. And this problem needs fixing. Nationalising the system ain’t as easy as passing a law. Shareholders have to be compensated and this requires valuations to be made, and agreed upon, or adjudicated. And it ain’t as though the shareholders are FTs. As mentioned earlier:

– Temasek owns 54% of SMRT; and

– The S’pore Labour Foundation, a statutory board linked to the NTUC, holds 12% of Comfort Delgro. SLF is Delgro’s single largest shareholder.

(Incidentally these stakes especially Temasek’s controlling stake shows how absurd the system is. S’pore has public transport private monopolies that are partially owned and controlled by the government. And the government regulates the fares and the routes. And as mentioned earlier, the government’s share of the dividends are now ploughed back and added to, but not appreciated by the public.)

Meantime, who is to run the system, and fund the fleet expansion? Public has to wait while these issues are sorted out? It’s OK for those critics who don’t use public transport that often, especially those who have one car per family person. But most S’poreans are not that fortunate.

To me, the government spending on the buses is a pragmatic quick fix both for the public and itself. The commuting public (self included when forced to travel during peak periods, admittedly a rare occurrence) gets less annoyed with the government, while the government is seen as publicly responding positively on a matter of public unhappiness.

As to the concern that the system is being fixed to bring more FTs in, let’s reserve judgement on that. Too early to even speculate. To even speculate, shows the level of mistrust that some people have of this government. I’m not one of them.

So while longer term, nationalisisation may be the best way to run a public transport system, it ain’t a short-term fix. The short-term fix is what the government is doing, throw money at the problem.

Critics should focus on whether the fix is the most cost-effective means of solving an immediate problem, not focus on a possible long-term solution. They should be making a case (not juz asking) for ComfortDelgro and SMRT to make massive rights issues to fund bus fleet expansion. Or asking for detailed details on what taxpayers get in return? Or how to ensure that the other shareholders don’t get a free lunch because of the S$1.1bn package.

Plenty of things to do to keep the government on its toes.

BTW, the full quote in the title is:

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!

——-

*I’ve simplified: there is a universe within the government — including the Land Transport Authority, the Ministry of Transport, the committee that fixes train and bus fares, the S’pore Labour Foundation, the Minister of Finance (owner of Temasek), the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the police force.

**Dodgy this calculation as I’ve used a dodgy, lazy assumption, but near enough for all but CFAers, or investment analysts, or myself when analysing an investment)

***The government has allocated S$1.1bn to the purchase of 800 new buses, 550 of which will be paid for by the government (that is, through public funds), with the remaining 250 paid for by the PTOs. The S$1.1bn is also to fund running costs over the next 10 years. More on the use of the money, and an assurance that the operators will not benefit because it is a subsidy for us commuters. [Last sentence is an update on @ March 2012 at 9.00am]

****Unless the WP has quietly ditched this too like its benchmarking of ministers’ pay to the poor. I am not being mean or nasty. In January 2012, Gerald Giam had to be reminded in a private conversation where I was present that nationalisation was in the party manifesto for the 2011 general election. GG seems to have difficulty remembering things. He had some problems in parliament during the ministers’ salaries debate.

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  1. [...] Cze: March – Political Writings: The Slippery Slope of Subsidy – Thoughts of a Cynical Investor: Oh what a tangled web we weave: MRT, ComfortDelgro and the Government – Singapore Notes: Attack Dog Mode – Reflections on Change: Budget 2012 — Concerns About Rising [...]

  2. In hind sight, PAP should not have privatized public transportation. They are basically bailing out the operators to keep things from falling apart. Next, they will be bailing out SMRT and “private” utilities.

  3. If you add the ‘interest’ to past dividend payments I’d think they reach the magic figure of 1B. Though I am not a supporter of blood sucking corporations what we’ve in town is much better and pragmatic.

    I see it as Gov investing in transportation (partially owned by public) and even open to benefit if the companies make money with this investment.

    This is much better than blindly bailing out companies in west. Next I wish with the ‘investment power’ gov to negotiate a elderly friendly, child friendly policies in the transport systems.

  4. For years, the PAP government has profited handsomely from these privatised public monopolies. Now, they are forced to re-channel their past profits (and more…) back into these companies. Does this constitute as an admission that their original system is faulty? That the public transport system should be nationalised after all, and ran at a cost-plus basis?

    Think about it. By nationalising our public transport system, we can cut our a layer of “fat”, i.e. the expensively-compensated but ultimately-incompetent teams of management for our public transport companies. E.g. Ex-SMRT CEO Saw was paid S$1.8mil annually. The savings could have improved the standard of our public transportation.

  5. You are also very confused. Those dividends are not the companies money that the government can put back. Those are tax payers money that TH invested in the companies.

    Say, if I pay $1million of tax money over the last 10 years, can the government then return “my” money of $1million?

    $1.1 billion is a clear free subsidy to a private company.

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