Singapore's Lesson: Buy High, Sell Low

Ho Ching's flawed management of the billions of public savings entrusted to her as chief executive of Temasek Holdings has continued until the last. Her successor, Chip Goodyear, formerly with BHP, moved in as CEO-designate in March and formerly takes over in October. But presumably it was Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who took the decision to sell out of its huge Bank of America holding, an investment originally made in Merrill Lynch which was taken over last year to save it from bankruptcy.

Now she has managed to sell out at what, at least on a six month view, looks close to the bottom of the US financial sector. The sale was completed by the end of March so presumably took place in the preceding few weeks. Since then the BoA share price has risen 66 percent.

Temasek's loss on BoA alone is estimated around US$4.6 billion, or roughly US$1,000 for every single Singaporean citizen. Big losses too were sustained on most of the rest of the financial portfolio such as Barclays of the UK and UBS of Switzerland.

Other huge losses were sustained by the even less transparent Government Investment Corporation, which invested Swiss francs 11 billion in UBS in 2007 and added to it in a rights issue in 2008. From US$60 in New York in 2007, UBS shares have slumped to US$13, having been down to US$7. Did GIC also sell UBS when Temasek was selling BoA? Or is its presence in Singapore, where it occupies the former residence of the president, too useful for bringing in business from Myanmar generals and other friends of Singapore?

The desire to get out of Wall Street's black holes was understandable but the exodus seems to have been part of the group's follow-the-crowd mentality. And one wonders if it is not going to repeat itself. Goodyear's claim to fame was increasing BHP's market capitalization from US$12 billion to US$200 billion and a quadrupling its share price in his eight years at the helm. However, most of this was luck – the biggest mineral price boom for 40 years -- plus acquisitions made at increasingly high prices. Goodyear's reputation would be very different if Rio Tinto had accepted BHP's top of the market bid made just after he left office but with his support. Instead Rio's ego maniac chief executive rejected the offer so, having saddled itself with massive debt of its own, now going cap in hand to China.

Will Goodyear push Temasek into resources because he knows about them and Singapore itself has caught the China-growth bug? For sure prices of commodities are down a lot from a year ago. But they also have long cycles.

The latest investment focus of Temasek now, according to an executive quoted by Bloomberg, is "going to be driven more and more by China's economy and consumers so might as well load up more on Chinese banks."

So Temasek is again following fashion, re-focusing on Asia at a time when Asian markets have already recovered a long way while its former western favorites are still languishing. Temasek still seems to think that Chinese banks made a good proxy for its economy and consumers. Just like Southeast Asia in the 1990s, China's economy can grow rapidly, but still leave banks with piles of bad debts flowing from government-directed lending.

For sure, developing Asia looks a better long-term bet than the west, but discovering that today is not exactly evidence of being ahead of the curve.

Quite how badly Temasek has done is hard to figure out because the data presented is scanty and unconsolidated. For example, in 2007-08 the value of its portfolio increased by 13 percent to S$185 billion but it is unsure how much of that was simply a capital injection from the government. There are also black holes like its subsidiary Astrea, which borrowed US$810 million in earlier in the decade to invest in a portfolio of private equity and buyout funds. Another fall for Wall Street fashion which will likely be reflected in pensions for Singaporeans.

Meanwhile Temasek's local portfolio has been persistently trimmed and now represents only 33 percent of assets. Of course it may make more sense to invest in faster growing countries rather than in low growth Singapore where there are few new opportunities for a company which already controls so much. Nevertheless it hard not to conclude that some of these sales, such as the December 2008 sale of PowerSeraya to Malaysia's YTL for S$3.8 billion are not partly designed to generate capital profits readily available from long-held local assets.

Ho appears to have made a career of assuming that smart people with the right degrees and loaded up with mathematical models in one hand and high sounding jargon in the other knew more than anyone else about investment. Thus during the boom years for financial services, Temasek followed the crowd, pushing the financial sector component of its portfolio up to 40 percent, most of it invested in just the high profile western outfits favored by Ho's Wharton-bred advisors..

Like the archetypal senior Singapore bureaucrat, paper qualifications seem to have counted for far more than actual experience running a business. Such businesses as these people run are mostly Singapore public sector ones shielded from the force of free competition. Even Singapore Airlines is beginning to look jaded in an era of low cost carriers pioneered by a Malaysian, Tony Fernandes and AirAsia, and the gradual breakdown of fare cartel.

If nothing else, the record of Temasek gives the lie to notion spread by Singapore's ruling clique that they are the best guardians of the people's savings. Paternalism morphed into an arrogance whose full cost to Singaporeans is for now hidden by the opaque nature of the government's accounts, and the very partial revelations provided by Temasek. Singaporeans, gather your purse-strings and, together, pull.