Singapore, investor in UBS, Citigroup, says worst yet to come

January 29, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Shamim Adam & Haslinda Amin

Singapore, whose state-owned funds invested about $24 billion in UBS AG, Citigroup Inc. and Merrill Lynch & Co. in the past 14 months, said the worst of the credit crunch is yet to come.

The world’s biggest banks still have toxic assets on their balance sheets, which are clogging up their ability to lend, Singapore Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday. The finance ministry oversees Government of Singapore Investment Corp. and Temasek Holdings Pte, each managing more than $100 billion.

Banks are still focusing on replenishing capital “and estimates of the extent of bad assets on their books are still on the upswing,” he said. “We haven’t seen the worst yet.”

Bank losses worldwide from U.S.-originated bad assets may reach $2.2 trillion, the International Monetary Fund said yesterday, more than the $1.4 trillion it predicted in October. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration and federal regulators are considering setting up a “bad bank” that would absorb illiquid assets from otherwise healthy financial firms.

Governments across Europe have injected capital into banks to ensure that lending to companies and consumers doesn’t freeze up. European Union regulators yesterday approved France’s plan to increase its funding for recapitalization of banks including BNP Paribas SA and Societe Generale SA to 11 billion euros ($14.5 billion), from an initial proposal for 10.5 billion euros.

Ireland’s government last month said it would invest 2 billion euros in Allied Irish and Bank of Ireland, the country’s biggest lenders.

“Foot the bill”

“It’s right that governments are focusing on recapitalization in the West and they’re trying their best to incentivize new lending,” Shanmugaratnam said. “It’s too early to say how successful this will be. Governments have to take more risk, and that means taxpayers have to be willing to foot part of the bill.”

The IMF report released yesterday signaled that writedowns and losses at banks totaling $1.1 trillion so far are only half of what’s to come. Losses on that scale would leave banks needing at least $500 billion in fresh capital to restore confidence in their balance sheets, the fund said.

Singapore’s leaders have defended the performance of the city’s state-owned investment companies after a plunge in the value of their stakes in Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and other global banks.

GIC, which manages the country’s reserves, invested about $18 billion in UBS and Citigroup since December 2007. Temasek, which has a $130 billion portfolio, increased investments in Merrill Lynch and Barclays Plc as the credit market collapsed in 2007 and 2008.

“Well diversified”

Temasek was the biggest shareholder in Merrill Lynch before the securities firm was taken over by Bank of America Corp. It is also the largest shareholder of banks including London-based Standard Chartered Plc and Singapore’s DBS Group Holdings Ltd., and has holdings in India’s ICICI Bank and other lenders in Indonesia, South Korea and Pakistan.

Temasek and GIC remain “well diversified” enough in their portfolios to offer the long-term returns the government seeks, Shanmugaratnam said.

“We would be very worried if global banks comprise a large proportion of the portfolios of GIC or Temasek, or for that matter, any of the highly vulnerable industries globally,” the minister said. “But these are diversified portfolios.”

Performed “credibly”

Temasek and GIC have performed “credibly by international standards,” he said. Temasek had an average 18 percent annual return on investment since its inception in 1974. GIC said in September that annual returns in the past 20 years averaged 7.8 percent in U.S. dollar terms, compared with about 6 percent for the MSCI World Index.

GIC last year also said it’s boosting investments in emerging markets, private equity and other asset classes to raise returns after cutting back stocks and holdings in developed nations.

“I’m comfortable with the actions both Temasek and GIC have taken early in this crisis to reduce risk, to move into more liquid asset allocation and to prepare for opportunities in this downturn,” Shanmugaratnam said. “We’ve got to make sure we maintain that record of prudent investments for the portfolio as a whole, diversifying risks, and being prepared for crises from time to time.”…