Saving Singapore's rich from bankers, and themselves

In the last eight years of cheap and abundant global cash, Singapore's central bank has acted again and again to protect lenders from the consequences of getting too greedy, especially in financing the city's pricey real estate.

But surely the island's nominally wealthy - those ordinary people who were just lucky to own property in Singapore before it became a playground of Asia's rich - also needed to be shielded from the side effects of their own desperation for yield?

Sadly, safeguards for the little guys are coming a bit late in the day. Bloomberg reporter Chanyaporn Chanjaroen on Tuesday chronicled the loss suffered by one Elaine Tham. All she wanted was to build a nest egg that would pay university fees for her children, but says she was persuaded by HSBC's local branch to invest $250,000 in the bonds of a Singapore energy-services company, Swiber Holdings, which welshed on its debt last month.

Had the bank not signed her up as an "accredited investor", based on a net worth (including her home and car) of more than $2 million, Ms Tham wouldn't have been able to buy the risky IOUs of an unrated issuer.

Swiber sold an unusually high proportion of its notes to the wealthy clients of banks in Singapore. It's hard to say how many of the people now nursing large losses are of the type prepared to blow big sums occasionally in their quest to amass wealth, and how many are just risk-averse folk bamboozled by relationship managers into gambling away their life savings.

It's not that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is looking the other way. Ever since the very public 2008 outcry over how banks had mis-sold Lehman-linked notes to regular Singaporeans as safe securities, the MAS has scrutinised selling practices and policies in the city's finance industry.

A year ago, the central bank said it would change the law in 2016 so that the default classification for new banking customers, who may meet the wealth and income criteria of accredited investors, would be retail. Banks won't be able to value primary homes at more than $1 million in calculating the net worth of investors.

The change, expected to take effect next year, is welcome. If the newly wealthy wish to forsake protection and play in the more glamorous corners of finance closed to the hoi polloi, they must explicitly ask. However, existing customers already categorised as accredited would still have to opt out if they didn't wish to be sold risky products.

With hindsight, the latter was perhaps the wrong decision. Behavioural science has shown that default options are considered more attractive, no matter what they are. Policymakers have exploited this quirk for everything from improving organ donation rates to making sure people are saving enough for retirement.

Given just how desperate the hunt for yield has become in a world of negative interest rates, the regulatory preference should be to treat all individuals, regardless of their wealth, as retail investors. Trading away that safety catch and spinning the roulette wheel on a 7.125 per cent Swiber bond should be a deliberate choice.

Banks might whine at the extra work and cost involved in signing up customers all over again, but giving people a proper defence - against their own folly and bankers' greed - has to take priority.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2016, with the headline 'Saving S'pore's rich from bankers, and themselves'. Print Edition | Subscribe