6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
The government takes a favorable stance towards foreign portfolio investment and fixed asset investments. While it welcomes capital market investments, the government has introduced macro-prudential policies aimed at reducing foreign speculative inflows in the real estate sector since 2009. The government promotes Singapore’s position as an asset and wealth management center, and assets under management grew 5.4 percent in 2018 to USD 2.4 trillion (SD 3.4 trillion) – the latest year for which MAS conducted a survey.
The Government of Singapore facilitates the free flow of financial resources into product and factor markets, and the Singapore Exchange (SGX) is Singapore’s stock market. An effective regulatory system exists to encourage and facilitate portfolio investment. Credit is allocated on market terms and foreign investors can access credit, U.S. dollars, Singapore dollars (SGD), and other foreign currencies on the local market. The private sector has access to a variety of credit instruments through banks operating in Singapore. The government respects IMF Article VIII by refraining from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.
Money and Banking System
Singapore’s banking system is sound and well regulated by MAS, and the country serves as a financial hub for the region. Banks have a very high domestic penetration rate, and according to World Bank Financial Inclusion indicators, over 97 percent of persons held a financial account in 2017. (latest year available). Local Singapore banks saw net profits rise 27 percent in the last quarter of 2019. Banks are statutorily prohibited from engaging in non-financial business. Banks can hold 10 percent or less in non-financial companies as an “equity portfolio investment.” At the end of 2019, the non-performing loans ratio (NPL ratio) of the three local banks remained at an averaged 1.5 percent since the last quarter of 2018.
Foreign banks require licenses to operate in the country. The tiered licenses, for Merchant, Offshore, Wholesale, Full Banks and Qualifying Full Banks (QFBs) subject banks to further prudential safeguards in return for offering a greater range of services. U.S. financial institutions enjoy phased-in benefits under the USSFTA. Since 2006, U.S.-licensed full-service banks that are also QFBs have been able to operate at an unlimited number of locations (branches or off-premises ATMs) versus 25 for non-U.S. full service foreign banks with QFB status.
Under the OECD Common Reporting Standards (CRS), which has been in effect since January 2017, Singapore-based Financial Institutions (SGFIs) – depository institutions such as banks, specified insurance companies, investment entities, and custodial institutions – are required to: 1) establish the tax residency status of all their account holders; 2) collect and retain CRS information for all non-Singapore tax residents in the case of new accounts; and 3) report to tax authorities the financial account information of account holders who are tax residents of jurisdictions with which Singapore has a Competent Authority Agreement (CAA) to exchange the information. As of December 2019, Singapore has established more than 80 exchange relationships, include with the United States, established in September 2018.
U.S. financial regulations do not restrict foreign banks’ ability to hold accounts for U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens are encouraged to alert the nearest U.S. Embassy of any practices they encounter with regard to the provision of financial services.
Fintech investments in Singapore rose from USD 365 million in 2018 to USD 861 million in 2019. To strengthen Singapore’s position as a global Fintech hub, MAS has created a dedicated Fintech Office as a one-stop virtual entity for all Fintech-related matters to enable experimentation and promote an open-API (Application Programming Interfaces) in the financial industry. Investment in payments start-ups accounted for about 40 percent of all funds. Singapore has more than 50 innovation labs established by global financial institutions and technology companies.
MAS also aims to be a regional leader in blockchain technologies and has worked to position Singapore as a financial technology center. MAS and the Association of Banks in Singapore are prototyping the use of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) for inter-bank clearing and settlement of payments and securities. Following a five-year collaborative project to understand the technology, a test network launched to facilitate collaboration in the cross-border blockchain ecosystem. Technical specifications for the functionalities and connectivity interfaces of the prototype network are publicly available. ( https://www.mas.gov.sg/schemes-and-initiatives/Project-Ubin ).
Alternative financial services include retail and corporate non-bank lending via finance companies, cooperative societies, and pawnshops; and burgeoning financial technology-based services across a wide range of sectors including: crowdfunding, initial coin offerings, and payment services and remittance. In January 2020, the Payment Services Bill went into effect, which will require all cryptocurrency service providers to be licensed with the intent to provide more user protection. Smaller payment firms will receive a different classification from larger institutions and will be less heavily regulated. Key infrastructure supporting Singapore’s financial market include interbank (MEP), Foreign exchange (CLS, CAPS), retail (SGDCCS, USDCCS, CTS, IBG, ATM, FAST, NETS, EFTPOS), securities (MEPS+-SGS, CDP, SGX-DC) and derivatives settlements (SGX-DC, APS) ( https://www.mas.gov.sg/regulation/payments/payment-systems )
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
The USSFTA commits Singapore to the free transfer of capital, unimpeded by regulatory restrictions. Singapore places no restrictions on reinvestment or repatriation of earnings and capital, and maintains no significant restrictions on remittances, foreign exchange transactions and capital movements.
Singapore’s monetary policy has been centered on the management of the exchange rate since 1981, with the stated primary objective of promoting medium term price stability as a sound basis for sustainable economic growth. As described by MAS, there are three main features of the exchange rate system in Singapore: 1) MAS operates a managed float regime for the Singapore dollar with the trade-weighted exchange rate allowed to fluctuate within a policy band; 2) the Singapore dollar is managed against a basket of currencies of its major trading partners; and 3) the exchange rate policy band is periodically reviewed to ensure that it remains consistent with the underlying fundamentals of the economy.
There are no time or amount limitations on remittances. No significant changes to investment remittance were implemented or announced over the past year. Local and foreign banks may impose their own limitations on daily remittances.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The Government of Singapore has three key investment entities: GIC Private Limited (GIC) is the sovereign wealth fund in Singapore that manages the government’s substantial foreign investments, fiscal, and foreign reserves, with the stated objective to achieve long-term returns and preserve the international purchasing power of the reserves. Temasek is a holding company wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance with investments in Singapore and abroad. MAS, as the central bank of Singapore, manages the Official Foreign Reserves, and a significant proportion of its portfolio is invested in liquid financial market instruments.
GIC does not publish the size of the funds under management, but some industry observers estimate its managed assets may exceed $400 billion. GIC does not invest domestically, but manages Singapore’s international investments, which are generally passive (non-controlling) investments in publicly traded entities. The United States is its top investment destination, accounting for 34 percent of GIC’s portfolio as of March 2020, while Asia (excluding Japan) accounts for 19 percent, the Eurozone 13 percent, Japan 13 percent, and UK 6 percent. Investments in the United States are diversified and include industrial and commercial properties, student housing, power transmission companies, and financial, retail and business services. GIC is a member of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds. Although not required by law, GIC has published an annual report since 2008.
Temasek began as a holding company for Singapore’s state-owned enterprises, now GLCs, but has since branched out to other asset classes and often holds significant stake in companies. As of March 2020, Temasek’s portfolio value reached $226 billion, and its asset exposure to Singapore is 24 percent; 42 percent in the rest of Asia, and 17 percent in North America. According to the Temasek Charter, Temasek delivers sustainable value over the long term for its stakeholders. Temasek has published a Temasek Review annually since 2004. The statements only provide consolidated financial statements, which aggregate all of Temasek and its subsidiaries into a single financial report. A major international audit firm audits Temasek Group’s annual statutory financial statements. GIC and Temasek uphold the Santiago Principles for sovereign investments.
Other investing entities of government funds include EDB Investments Pte Ltd, Singapore’s Housing Development Board, and other government statutory boards with funding decisions driven by goals emanating from the central government.