Fleeced

February 12, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

CNN reported today that Merrill Lynch paid a total of $121 million (amounts in USD unless otherwise stated) to its top four bonus recipients in 2008 just before it went out of business. The next top for bonus recipients received $62 million, and the next top six bonus packages totalled $66 million. In other words, 14 people in the US were given nearly $250 million.

The list goes on: nearly 700 of the company’s top executives (out of a total of 39,000 employees) walked away with at least $1 million each in bonuses bringing the grand total  paid out to a cool $3.6 billion.

These benefits were dished out last December, just days before the bank announced that it had made a $15-billion loss in the 4th quarter ($27 billion for the year). A few days later, the company was sold to Bank of America.

The Merrill saga would make for fascinating reading if not for the fact that we Singaporeans were the ones paying for this scam.

And who was behind the fiasco? In December 2007, Temasek Holdings bought into Merrill Lynch and paid $4.4 billion for a 9.4 percent stake, making it the biggest shareholder even though the bank was already losing money then. By July 2008, Merrill reported another two quarters of losses and announced that it needed more capital – $8.5 billion to be exact.

Normally this would have been seen as a warning signal that something was amiss. But the bright sparks at Temasek, chief among them Ms Ho Ching, unbelievably chose to up its stake to 14 percent in the flailing and failing bank. Temasek did this because it believed that Merrill had a “great franchise”. It even announced that it had “great confidence” in the bank’s CEO John Thain, who was fired from BoA earlier this year for not disclosing Merrill’s losses.

But you wouldn’t know about the tumult by looking at Temasek’s website because it carries no news about Merrill. The website does say, however, that Temasek is “built on professionalism and robust processes”.

All that professionalism and robustness under Ms Ho’s leadership led the group to declare a 31 percent loss last year in its portfolio of S$185 billion – and that was just between March and November. Temasek has invested 40 percent of its budget in financial services. Put together, we are probably staring at an even greater loss.

The S$58-billion loss incurred by Temasek works out to, based on 3 million citizens, S$20,000 per Singaporean. If this money had been returned to the people instead of lining the already bulging pockets of the fat cats in Wall Street, each Singaporean household would have an average of S$80,000 to fall back on in these hardest of times.

As it was, Mr John Thain spent $1.2 million of company money to renovate his office and we ended up helping to pay for, among other things, a $35,000 toilet-bowl and a $1,400 wastebasket.

The scary bit about all this is that the GIC has yet to announce its losses.

In the meantime, the Government tells Singaporeans to further tighten their belts. Wonderful advice for the thousands who stand in line everyday for free food.