ST Dec 2, 2007
New rule to safeguard council funds
By Tan Hui Yee & Mavis Toh
TOWN councils tempted to play the stock market to increase the returns on their sinking funds will now have to meet a new rule that caps how much they can put into higher-risk investments.
Councils, which have had some leeway when investing their cash, must limit their investments in non-government stocks, funds or securities to 35 per cent of the sinking fund.
This new rule, which kicked in yesterday, applies to more than $1 billion in sinking funds managed by the 16 town councils in Singapore.
The money is collected through monthly service and conservancy charges and government grants and is used for cyclical repairs, such as re-painting or re-roofing.
The Ministry of National Development brought the rule in to strike a balance between councils trying to get good returns on their funds and not taking undue risks with residents' money.
Some council cash has been going into shares and corporate bonds, which are considered riskier than government ones.
The president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals Leong Sze Hian said: 'Corporate bonds are only as good as the company can pay. The risk of a company running out of money is higher than that of the Government.'
Before the new rule, council investments were governed by the Trustees Act, which placed restrictions on some instruments. The new 35 per cent cap is seen as stricter, but no council contacted by The Sunday Times said it would have trouble complying.
The Hong Kah Town Council has about $150 million in its sinking fund, with one-third invested in government bonds returning 2 to 3 per cent. Another third is in short-term fixed deposits with returns of 1.5 to 3 per cent, with the rest handled by fund managers.
The investments can include corporate bonds and stocks, which are riskier. But this portion, handled by fund managers, nets about 8 to 10 per cent in returns a year, said council chairman Ang Mong Seng.
Sinking funds are typically parked in safe investment instruments, such as government bonds and fixed deposits. But a few years ago, many councils felt that they could do better by investing in other instruments, such as shares.
Many then let fund managers invest a bigger portion of their cash and reap better returns.
Something has gone seriously wrong somewhere.
Remember why we pay service and conservancy charges to our town councils every month? So that they can provide public services in our constituencies.
You know, things like getting cleaners to sweep your HDB block; planting trees around your neighbourhood; building a few sheltered walkways; upgrading the children's playground; and renovating the public toilets in your town centre.
Obviously, we have been paying too much.
Why else would the town councils be sitting on more than $1,000,000,000 in excess cash!
And now we see what their big concerns are. Things like how to invest all that money; how much should they dabble in the stock market; how much should be used to purchase bonds; how much should be placed in fixed deposits.
It's as if the town council were a fund manager or a unit trust. Except that you as customer are never going to get a cent back.
They took your cash, and used some of it to maintain the physical facilities of your neighbourhood ... and the rest of your money is for the town council to go and play with, according to their own rules!
And you still have to pay them. Every month.