Saturday, December 20, 2008

Public Gambling

Mr Khaw Boon Wan comes across as an honest man. Really. Read what he says in interviews and listen to him in Parliament. You cannot fault the man for being drop-death honest with you. He doesn't fudge the issues. Instead, he tells it like it is. He speaks to the common folks, not at them, not over them, not from above. So you cannot but like the man for his forthrightness and ability to empathise with you.

He has come out to admit that the mis-investment of sinking funds should rightly be a concern to the man in the street, for after all, these mis-invested money are the people's money, they belong to the townsfolk. (See Straits Times, 19 Dec 2008). But he reasons that since these same investments made money in the past, and the current losses represents a small portion of these gains, it shows that these funds are, on balance, in good hands. He further makes the point that the statement of accounts of these town councils can be inspected any time, no questions asked. I think he is being level-headed and reasonable again. But the problem with this is that it isn't very useful examining the books 'after the fact', is it?

But surely the thing that saved the TC's bacon this time was past investment gains. Let us do a thought experiment, for the heck of it. If a TC had $10million in sinking funds, and invests 10% of it in risky structured deposits (i.e. $100,000) - the law says they can't go beyond 30%. Again, assuming that the annual yield of that investment is 10%. The investment will have yielded $100,000 x 10% = $10,000 in a year. Let's assume the good times lasted 3 years and assuming the same rate of return, the TC ends up with $30,000 profit (let's not do the compounding thing and we shall ignore inflation). Suppose in the 4th year, a financial tsunami hits, and the fund loses $29,000 in absolute terms. That still gives the fund a positive $1,000 over 4 years. Is that good management of funds or not? Of course, you'd have to consider the opportunity cost of the next best option, which is a Fixed Deposit. Over 4 years, the yield, at 2% per annum, will be $2,000 x 4 years, or $8,000. Clearly, in this scenario, it would have been better if the money had been invested in FDs. Of course, you will argue that this scenario is contrived to 'win' the argument, but so is the 'luck' that the TCs counted on over the past to accumulate enough surplus to still come out quite decent in its overall investment returns in spite of the $16million loss. Nevertheless, could my contrived scenario be possible?

If so, in both cases, the balance sheets still yield a positive bottom line, but you and I know that they have lost big time with the structured investment. Mr Khaw's argument begins to get into trouble with a scenario somewere in-between. Is he not then gambling with numbers, like all those queues we witness in front of 4-D booths almost everyday?

It is ok if the money belongs to you, or a private business, but if it is the people's money, which Mr Khaw very rightly admits to be the case, then this risk is not obviously acceptable.

The TCs were just lucky this time around. I know of people, and you will too, whose investments have almost been wiped out, or at least reduced so drastically that it would be a pain greater than going to hell, to liquidate now. And I am not referring only to the, I mean.

Image: Author: Lisa Solonynko

1 comment :

Daniel Ling said...

Hi, I just like to say tat after reading through so many blogs about the Mini Bonds issue on the Point of Previous Good Years Returns. I think yours explains the best y it's still wrong.

They were just lucky tat the bomb didn't explode in their faces. But sincerely, i wish it did.