6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Foreigners may trade in securities and derivatives. Malaysia houses one of Asia’s largest corporate bond markets, and is the largest sukuk (Islamic bond) market in East Asia. Both domestic and foreign companies regularly access capital in Malaysia’s bond market. Malaysia provides tax incentives for foreign companies issuing Islamic bonds and financial instruments in Malaysia.
Malaysia’s stock market (Bursa Malaysia) is open to foreign investment and foreign corporation issuing shares. However, foreign issuers remain subject to bumiputera ownership requirements of 12.5 percent if the majority of their operations are in Malaysia. Listing requirements for foreign companies are similar to that of local companies. There are additional criteria for foreign companies wanting to list in Malaysia including, among others: approval of regulatory authorities of foreign jurisdiction where the company was incorporated, valuation of assets that are standards applied in Malaysia or International Valuation Standards, and the company must have been registered with the Registrar of Companies under the Companies Act 1965 or 2016.
Malaysia has taken steps to promote good corporate governance by listed companies. Publicly listed companies must submit quarterly reports that include a balance sheet and income statement within two months of each financial quarter’s end and audited annual accounts for public scrutiny within four months of each year’s end. An individual may hold up to 25 corporate directorships. All public and private company directors are required to attend classes on corporate rules and regulations.
Legislation also regulates equity buybacks, mandates book entry of all securities transfers, and requires that all owners of securities accounts be identified. A Central Depository System (CDS) for stocks and bonds established in 1991 makes physical possession of certificates unnecessary. All shares traded on the Bursa Malaysia must be deposited in the CDS. Short selling of stocks is prohibited.
Money and Banking System
International investors generally regard Malaysia’s banking sector as dynamic and well regulated. Although privately owned banks are competitive with state-owned banks, the state-owned banks dominate the market. The five largest banks – Maybank, CIMB, Public Bank, RHB, and Ambank – account for an estimated 75 percent of banking sector loans. According to the World Bank, total banking sector lending for 2017 was 140.27 percent of GDP, and 1.5 percent of the Malaysian banking sector’s loans were non-performing for 2017.
Bank Negara prohibits hostile takeovers of banks, but the Securities Commission has established non-discriminatory rules and disclosure requirements for hostile takeovers of publicly traded companies.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
In December 2016, the central bank, began implementing new foreign exchange management requirements. Under the policy, exporters are required to convert 75 percent of their export earnings into Malaysian ringgit. The goal of this policy was to deepen the market for the currency, with the goal of reducing exchange rate volatility. The policy remains in place, with the Central Bank giving case-by-case exceptions. All domestic trade in goods and services must be transacted in ringgit only, with no optional settlement in foreign currency. The Central Bank has demonstrated little flexibility with respect to the ratio of earnings that exporters hold in ringgit. Post is unaware of any instances where the requirement for exporters to hold their earnings in ringgit has impeded their ability to remit profits to headquarters.
Malaysia imposes few investment remittance rules on resident companies. Incorporated and individual U.S. investors have not raised concerns about their ability to transfer dividend payments, loan payments, royalties or other fees to home offices or U.S.-based accounts. Tax advisory firms and consultancies have not flagged payments as a significant concern among U.S. or foreign investors in Malaysia. Foreign exchange administration policies place no foreign currency asset limits on firms that have no ringgit-denominated debt. Companies that fund their purchases of foreign exchange assets with either onshore or offshore foreign exchange holdings, whether or not such companies have ringgit-denominated debt, face no limits in making remittances. However, a company with ringgit-denominated debt will need approval from the Central Bank for conversions of RM50 million or more into foreign exchange assets in a calendar year.
The Treasury Department has not identified Malaysia as a currency manipulator.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The Malaysian Government established government-linked investment companies (GLICs) as vehicles to harness revenue from commodity-based industries and promote growth in strategic development areas. Khazanah is the largest of the GLICs, and the company holds equity in a range of domestic firms as well as investments outside Malaysia. The other GLICs – Armed Forces Retirement Fund (LTAT), National Capital (PNB), Employees Provident Fund (EPF), Pilgrimage Fund (Tabung Haji), Public Employees Retirement Fund (KWAP) – execute similar investments but are structured as savings vehicles for Malaysians. Khazanah follows the Santiago Principles and participates in the International Forum on Sovereign Wealth Funds
Khazanah was incorporated in 1993 under the Companies Act of 1965 as a public limited company with a charter to promote growth in strategic industries and national initiatives. As of December 31, 2018, Khazanah reported a 21 percent drop in its net worth and a decline in its “realizable” assets to RM136 billion (from USUSD 39.3 billion to USUSD 32.9 billion). Khazanah also recorded a pre-tax loss of RM6.27 billion (USUSD 1.52 billion) compared to a pre-tax profit of RM2.89 billion (USUSD 723 million) the previous year. The sectors comprising its major holdings include telecommunications and media, airports, banking, real estate, health care, and the national energy utility. According to its Annual Review 2019 presentation, in 2018, Khazanah’s mandate and objectives were refreshed, and the company will now pursue its two distinct objectives (commercial vs. strategic) through a dual-fund investment structure: (1) an intergenerational wealth fund to meet its commercial objectives (which will include public and private assets); and (2) a strategic fund to meet its strategic objective (which will include strategic assets and developmental ones).
7. State-Owned Enterprises
State-owned enterprises play a very significant role in the Malaysian economy. Such enterprises have been used to spearhead infrastructure and industrial projects. As of July 2017, the government owns approximately 42 percent of the value of firms listed on the Bursa Malaysia through its seven Government-Linked Investment Corporations (GLICs), including a majority stake in a number of companies. Only a minority portion of stock is available for trading for some of the largest publicly listed local companies. Khazanah, often considered the government’s sovereign wealth fund, owns stakes in companies competing in many of the country’s major industries. Prime Minister Mahathir chairs Khazanah’s Board of Directors. PETRONAS, the state-owned oil and gas company, is Malaysia’s only Fortune Global 500 firm.
As part of its Government Linked Companies (GLC) Transformation Program, the Malaysian Government embarked on a two-pronged strategy to reduce its shares across a range of companies and to make those companies more competitive. Among the notable divestments of recent years, Khazanah, the largest Government-Linked Investment Company (GLIC), offloaded its stake in the national car company Proton to DRB-Hicom Bhd in 2012. In 2013, Khazanah divested its holdings in telecommunications services giant Time Engineering Bhd. In 2015, Khazanah cut its equity ownership of national utility company Tenaga Nasional from 31 percent to 29 percent. Khazanah’s annual report for 2017 noted only that the fund had completed 12 divestments that produced a gain of RM 2.5 billion (USD 625 million). In 2018, Khazanah partially divested its shares in IHH Healthcare Berhad, saw two successful IPOs, and issued USUSD 321 million in exchangeable sukuk. However, significant losses at domestic companies including at Axiata, Telekom Malaysia, Tenaga Nasional, IHH Healthcare Berhad, CIMB Bank, and Malaysia Airports led to the pre-tax loss of USUSD 1.52 billion the company experienced in 2018. In April 2019, Khazanah sold 1.5 percent of its stake in Tenaga Nasional on Bursa Malaysia, after which Khazanah still owned 27.27 percent of the national electric company.
State-owned enterprises (SOEs), which in Malaysia are called government-linked companies (GLCs), with publicly traded shares must produce audited financial statements every year. These SOEs must also submit filings related to changes in the organization’s management. The SOEs that do not offer publicly traded shares are required to submit annual reports to the Companies Commission. The requirement for publicly reporting the financial standing and scope of activities of SOEs has increased their transparency. It is also consistent with the OECD’s guideline for Transparency and Disclosure. Moreover, many SOEs prioritize operations that maximize their earnings. However, the close relationships SOEs have with senior government officials blur the line between strictly commercial activity pursued for its own sake and activity that has been directed to advance a policy interest. For example, Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas) is both SOE in the oil and gas sector and the regulator of the industry. Malaysia Airlines (MAS), in which the government previously held 70 percent but now holds 100 percent, required periodic infusions of resources from the government to maintain the large numbers of the company’s staff and senior executives. The airline is still undergoing a restructuring, and the stated goal of the country’s largest sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah, which holds all of the airline’s shares, is to re-list the airline in early 2019.
In several key sectors, including transportation, agriculture, utilities, financial services, manufacturing, and construction, Government Linked Corporations (GLCs) continue to dominate the market. However, the Malaysian Government remains publicly committed to the continued, eventual privatization, though it has not set a timeline for the process and faces substantial political pressure to preserve the roles of the GLCs. The Malaysian Government established the Public-Private Partnership Unit (UKAS) in 2009 to provide guidance and administrative support to businesses interested in privatization projects as well as large-scale government procurement projects. UKAS, which used to be a part of the Office of the Prime Minister, is now under the Ministry of Finance. UKAS oversees transactions ranging from contracts and concessions to sales and transfers of ownership from the public sector to the private sector.
Foreign investors may participate in privatization programs, but foreign ownership is limited to 25 percent of the privatized entity’s equity. The National Development Policy confers preferential treatment to the bumiputera, which are entitled to at least 30 percent of the privatized entity’s equity.
The privatization process is formally subject to public bidding. However, the lack of transparency has led to criticism that the government’s decisions tend to favor individuals and businesses with close ties to high-ranking officials.