Thursday, June 26, 2008

Good on Temasek, Shame on the Government

On Recent Events

I have come to know, through very reliable sources, of an incident that has greatly enhanced my confidence in Temasek as being independent of government influence. This incident has greatly influenced my perceptions of Temasek and has deepened my understanding of the regulatory problems that Temasek is facing in Indonesia and Thailand.

Not too long ago, the top officials of a Singapore Government Agency (let's call it ABC) approached the top leadership of Temasek, seeking that Temasek influence one of the corporations (XYZ) under its control to enact a series of plans designed to produce a favourable regulatory outcome for ABC. This occurred because ABC feared that it would not be able to get XYZ to do what ABC wanted without Temasek's influence.

I am extremely happy to say that Temasek turned around to ABC and said that Temasek cannot and would not influence the management of the corporations under its control. This is despite the fact that Temasek could have tried to accede to ABC's requests and influence XYZ without risk of public knowledge. However, I feel that the officials of ABC should have known much better than to try to use the government's position as owner of Temasek to try to get Temasek to influence XYZ in ABC's favour.

Temasek and the Ministry of Finance have clearly stated repeatedly that Temasek is to act independently of the government as a financial investor. Temasek's role is thus not to produce political and/or regulatory outcomes for government agencies. Any act by Temasek to this effect would severely tarnish the credibility and reputation of Temasek in its operations, particularly considering the trouble it is going through with Shin Corp in Thailand and with Indosat in Indonesia.

Thus, I would go so far to say that ABC's behaviour was tantamount to an attempt to abuse one's position of authority and influence. It was a selfish act that only considered the individual interests of ABC without considering the potentially deliterious consequences to Temasek, the Ministry of Finance, and the rest of Singapore. I am hence extremely disappointed with the top officials of ABC. What they did was fundamentally irresponsible and unacceptable.

Once again, I would like to give credit to Ho Ching and Temasek for standing firm in not exercising its influence over XYZ, and hope that this behaviour is indicative of how Temasek conducts itself with the rest of its investments.

On PT Indosat

ST Telemedia has recently completed its divestment of its stake in PT Indosat to Qatar Telecom.
ST Telemedia completes $2.5b Indosat sale to Qtel
S'pore firm transfers stake that had been at centre of antitrust dispute. -ST
Chua Hian Hou

Tue, Jun 24, 2008
The Straits Times

QATAR Telecom (Qtel) has defied some political resistance to complete a controversial acquisition of a Singapore firm's stake in No.2 Indonesian telco Indosat.

The US$1.8 billion (S$2.5 billion) stake was transferred to Qtel by Singapore Technologies Telemedia (ST Telemedia), which held the shares in two holding companies. ST Telemedia is a unit of Temasek Holdings.

The Indosat stake that ST Telemedia held has been at the centre of a legal dispute since last year, when Indonesia's Business Competition Supervisory Commission, or KPPU, ruled that the Singapore firm had breached antitrust laws.

The KPPU claimed that Temasek had engaged in monopolistic practices in Indonesia's mobile-phone market, and had breached anti-competitive laws by holding majority stakes in more than one company in the same industry.

Temasek has a deemed stake of about 20 per cent in Indonesia's No.1 telco Telekomunikasi Selular (Telkomsel) held via SingTel. It also had a 31 per cent deemed stake in Indosat, held via its wholly owned unit ST Telemedia.

The KPPU fined the companies and also ordered Temasek to sell its deemed stake in either Telkomsel or Indosat. It also ruled that buyers could purchase the shares only in 5 per cent chunks at most.

Temasek, SingTel and ST Telemedia claimed that there was no breach of antitrust laws and appealed against the ruling in the Central Jakarta District Court.

But last month, the Indonesian court upheld the KPPU's ruling. The three firms then said they would appeal against this decision to the Indonesian Supreme Court.

But on June 7, ST Telemedia announced that it was selling its Indosat stake to Qtel.
It is unfortunate that ST Telemedia has had to elect to divest its lucrative stake in PT Indosat in order for its parent, Temasek, to avoid further complications in the antitrust lawsuit it is facing against KPPU. While not the most favourable outcome, practically it was probably the most prudent decision on the part of ST Telemedia.

In light of the incident I have narrated above, I have much more confidence in believing that Temasek exerted no strategic influence over its 'effective' stakes in PT Indosat (previously owned thru ST Telemedia) or Telkomsel (currently owned thru SingTel). In light of this, the regulatory decision by KPPU against Temasek probably holds little water and I am inclined to accept the arguments of Temasek's lawyers that Temasek is innocent of the claims of monopolistic practices brought against it by KPPU.

Yet this incident is exemplary of the problems that Temasek faces as it expands out of Singapore to make investments overseas. Even as Temasek makes its decisions on commercial grounds and independently of the Singapore government, its government-linked perception and the close ties to the government do Temasek no favours. Indeed, Temasek's status as a government owned entity is very much a liability when it comes to dealing with political and regulatory knock-on effects. Temasek's actions overseas incite political suspicion simply because it is owned by the Ministry of Finance, and not necessarily because the government actually exerts any influence over its actions.

On Shin Corp

How best, then, to deal with this problem? One solution would be not to take any majority stakes in any prominent or politically-linked foreign companies:
Singapore's Temasek plans to cut its stake in Thailand's Shin Corp
By Amy Kazmin in Bangkok, for the Financial Times
Published: June 18 2008 03:00 | Last updated: June 18 2008 03:00

SINGAPORE'S Temasek Holdings plans to reduce its stake in Shin Corp, the Thai group it took control of more than two years ago, through a public offering of shares.

In a statement to the Stock Exchange of Thailand yesterday, Shin Corp said it was drafting a prospectus for an offering that would increase the minority shareholding, although it also said it would have to monitor the investment climate and sentiment in order to "conduct a successful offering . . . in the future".

Shin Corp gave no details of a timeframe or size for such a deal.
In January 2006, Temasek paid $3.8bn, or Bt49 per share, for a 96 per cent stake in Shin Corp, the telecommunications-to-aviation group founded by Thaksin Shinawatra, who was then Thailand's prime minister.

The deal, Thailand's largest takeover, triggered a crisis as Bangkok residents protested against the Shinawatra family's $1.9bn tax-free profits from the deal.

Critics accused the Singaporean state investment agency of violating Thai laws limiting foreign ownership of telecoms companies to 49 per cent, though the deal replicated similar take-overs.

The furore culminated in the September 2006 coup and the seizure of most of the Shinawatra family's earnings from the sale.

The military government also vowed to investigate whether the takeover violated foreign investment laws.
Like the PT Indosat case, Temasek probably made the investment in Shin Corp in full compliance of the laws of Thailand as they knew it, and were unfortunate victims of the political turmoil in Thailand. In all fairness to Temasek, it had probably no inkling that the military coup and its subsequent fallout could have been triggered by the sale of Shin Corp by Thaksin Shinawatra to Temasek.

Yet in hindsight, the highly politically charged nature of the transaction should have raised alarm bells during Temasek's political due diligence of the transaction. Here was an asset of national pride, changing hands between the Prime Minister of the country and the investment arm of a foreign government body. Surely there had to be knock-on political ramifications.

But nevermind that, what is done has been done and we cannot turn back the clock. Yet Temasek's latest plan to cut its stake in Shin Corp only just having recently acquired it, is acknowledgement that an investment's political fallout is a burden too heavy for the company to bear. This mirrors ST Telemedia's decision subsequent to the KPPU case, on behalf of Temasek.

But adopting such a strategy going forward can place significant constraints on Temasek's investment options. It now has to carefully weigh the potential political ramifications of every investment it makes. Doing so would narrow the universe of potential investment and acquisition targets available to Temasek, and place downward pressures on Temasek's investment returns. That Temasek's assets under management continue to balloon, do it no favours either. Temasek has to deal with the double whammy of having more capital under its responsibility, and fewer options with which to deploy this capital.

Indeed, Ho Ching's job is certianly not one I would envy; it is a tough set of problems she has to deal with. But deal with these problems, she and her team must. Otherwise, it is time to reduce the scale and scope of Temasek, and start returning the money to the people.

Can Singapore's corporate elite come up with the solutions for such tough problems? Singaporeans will surely watch intently, and only time will tell.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Temasek’s Hands in Too Many Pies

In the latest news surrounding Temasek – related investments in Telecom companies, ST Telemedia has divested its entire stake in PT Indosat to Qatar Telecom.
Business Times - 09 Jun 2008
STT sells Indosat stake, giving Qatar firm a boost
ST Telemedia divesting its entire stake in Indonesian mobile operator

(DUBAI/SINGAPORE) Qatar Telecom (Qtel) is poised to be a major player in the Indonesian telecoms market with the announcement on Saturday that Singapore Technologies Telemedia is selling its entire stake in PT Indosat.

'We believe that Indonesia is a high growth market for telecommunications and that Indosat is very well placed to compete in that market,' said Qtel chief executive Nasser Marafih.

Qtel will pay US$1.8 billion for the 40.8 per cent stake in PT Indosat held by Asia Mobile Holdings, a joint venture firm between the Qatari outfit and STT.

ST Telemedia, a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings, will no longer have any involvement in Indosat after the transaction.

The disposal of the stake came after an Indonesian competition watchdog ruled that Temasek has breached the country's anti-monopoly laws and ordered the Singapore investment firm to divest its holdings in either PT Indosat or PT Telkomsel.

Temasek indirectly holds 35 per cent of PT Telkomsel via its 56-per cent owned unit Singapore Telecommunications Ltd (SingTel).
Temasek’s official line is that ST Telemedia’s board of directors made the divestment decision entirely independently of Temasek. Independence might be true at an operational level, in the sense that the executives handling the divestment and the executives handling the anti-monopoly lawsuit do not know about what each other are doing. However, we can be quite sure that top level executives at Temasek were fully cognizant of all developments at STT which led to the decision to divest the PT Indosat stake, in light of the legal developments in Indonesia.

STT’s latest move in divesting PT Indosat is the latest in a string of developments that can be traced directly to Temasek’s nature as a Singapore government-owned investment agency; the Shin Saga is probably the incident that is most vivid in our minds. While Temasek and its subsidiaries may have complied with the law (according to its lawyers), its close links to the Singapore government and ruling family have presented unpleasant problems as the company ventures overseas and makes investments abroad.

Foreign governments, for whatever reason, have seen it unfit for Temasek to exert too much influence on their countries’ corporate scenes; the spectre of a tiny country owning massive stakes in prominent corporations has lead to anti-competitive lawsuits, tax-evasion attacks and pretty much anything else plausible in the legal arsenal to make sure that Temasek feels the pain of its corporate expansion. And as the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy.

The aftermath of the Thai military coup and the resultant pain felt by Temasek subsequent to stock market losses on Shin Corp must surely have fueled the rapid decision by STT to divest its PT Indosat stake, for fear of potential losses to PT Indosat or further legal penalties that Temasek might have had to suffer as a result of the ongoing legal action in Indonesia. Indeed, there is no other plausible explanation - the PT Indosat stake is such a lucrative investment that ST Telemedia would certainly not have made such a divestment except under duress.

These recent events only serve to underscore the challenges that Temasek faces going forward – its massive capital base, extensive reach in many companies, and undeniable politically-linked image mean that Temasek will see itself facing the prospect of anti-competitive suspicions and political reactions from foreign governments. Indeed, it would certainly be no surprise if Temasek’s investment analysts have added a new dimension to their investment risk analysis – the risk of political backlash, a risk quite unique to Temasek. These risks will only serve to grow as the corporation extends its reach and as the funds under its care expand in size.

And so perhaps it is time for the government to rethink its strategy with regards to its management of its sovereign wealth, and perhaps consider some sort of proper privatization of the GLCs under Temasek’s ownership. For instance, the Indonesian antitrust case would certainly not have happened if Temasek did not control SingTel. Or Temasek might be seen to be much more independent from the Singapore government if it underwent some form of privatization, perhaps an IPO and listing and the attendant enforced corporate disclosure.

Whatever the case, maintaining the status quo is definitely unsatisfactory. Temasek will see its investment mandate constrained by attempts to avoid political backlash from the foreign countries it seeks to invest in. One thing is for sure – repeated press releases claiming that Temasek acts independently of the government and independently of its subsidiaries are too little and too lousy.

It is time for Temasek and the Singapore Government to do better.