NEWS ANALYSIS

Ideal climate for Temasek retail bonds

Temasek bonds enjoy top investment-grade ratings from Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's.
Temasek bonds enjoy top investment-grade ratings from Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Good time for issue given volatile share prices, low bank interest rates

Temasek Holdings has taken another step towards fulfilling its long-term goal of giving ordinary investors here a chance to co-invest alongside the firm.

On Wednesday, it launched another vehicle in tandem with several institutional entities, featuring a range of holdings in 36 private equity funds.

Temasek said the move is part of efforts to develop co-investment platforms in which diversified portfolios of assets can be made available to a broader range of investors.

Temasek president Lee Theng Kiat said such platforms allow his firm to "test market interest and fine-tune (its) thinking and product positioning for eventual participation by retail investors".

He noted that one of the firm's "long-held aspirations is to have long-term minded retail investors, especially retail investors in Singapore", participate in its investments.

Mr Lee added that the firm hopes to start by offering Temasek bonds to retail investors "when there is a suitable opportunity to do so".

Speculation has been building in financial circles that the Singapore company might soon be making its much-coveted bonds available to retail investors.

In January, Mr Stephen Forshaw, Temasek's managing director of corporate affairs, had noted that the investment firm was looking at how to make it "practical and efficient" to offer bonds to such investors.

"This will provide an alternative investment opportunity for those seeking stable returns with lower risks," he noted in a statement on Temasek's website.

Given the ongoing stock market turbulence and last October's penny stock crash, retail investors here must be wishing they had Temasek bonds in their portfolio arsenal to cushion themselves from the uncertainty of volatile share prices.

Temasek bonds enjoy top investment-grade ratings from Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's.

These highly sought-after instruments have had terms of between 10 and 40 years, with a coupon rate of about 2.4 per cent to 5.4 per cent. This enables investors to beat inflation here, which is forecast to be between 2 per cent and 3 per cent this year. The coupon rate is the guaranteed annual payment investors receive from bonds.

Singapore real investment trusts now yield about 5 per cent to 7 per cent on average after their unit prices fell amid January's stock market dip, but they do carry more risk than Temasek bonds.

Already, retail investors have warmly welcomed the retail bond offerings, issued by the likes of Singapore Airlines, CapitaMall Trust and DBS Group Holdings.

CIMB regional economist Song Seng Wun has said that Temasek bonds would offer ordinary investors a "safe" choice, allowing them to "sleep soundly with virtually nothing to worry about".

This current climate of sluggish but volatile shares and still near- zero bank deposit interest rates could provide the ideal landscape for Temasek to launch these bonds.

Although the United States Federal Reserve has begun trimming its massive money-printing regime, it has indicated that interest rates are still set to remain near zero until next year at the earliest.

This period of low interest rates makes it an ideal time for bond issuance given the negative correlation between bond prices and interest rates and the meagre returns from leaving money in the bank.

Temasek chief executive Ho Ching first mooted the idea of allowing retail investors to co-invest with it, some five years earlier.

Ms Ho noted then that "a broad base of stakeholders will be part of (Temasek's) ecology for discipline and performance in the decades ahead".

Currently, Temasek bonds are offered only to institutional investors such as pension funds and sophisticated investors via banks, due partly to regulatory considerations.

The Straits Times understands that there is a minimum investment level of $250,000, which puts them out of reach for the average investor.

These bonds are issued - not primarily to raise money - but to provide public markers of Temasek's financial discipline and credit quality.

The launch of retail bonds could lower this figure to as little as $1,000 - the typical minimum amount for corporate and government bonds traded on the Singapore Exchange.

This would give ordinary Singaporeans a unique opportunity to participate in Temasek's gains.

"If they pull it off it will be a new thing, and I suspect it's a good way of helping Singaporeans feel they are 'bought in'," Ms Victoria Barbary, director of the London-based Sovereign Wealth Centre, told The Financial Times.

However, in order to proceed with a retail issue, Temasek will have to clear several regulatory hurdles before a prospectus can be issued to the public.

This would mean a lot more disclosure and a process that is likely to take more than just the next few months.

But the current climate makes retail investors hope it will be a case of better sooner rather than later.

alfoo@sph.com.sg