Time to try and decode PNB's investing strategy, as some have voiced concerns over its last few fixed priced funds, and its ability to maintain those returns. Some of the information have been extracted from articles in The Edge.
Four of the 10 PNB funds are known as fixed-price funds where the price per unit is fixed at RM1 regardless of how the market performed. There is a history behind this practice. The first PNB fund, Amanah Saham Nasional, was launched as a fixed-price fund in 1981 but it reverted back to market pricing in 1991 as per the trust deed. Soon after that, Amanah Saham Bumiputera, a fixed-price fund was launched in 1990 for investors not accustomed to market fluctuations. Altogether, there are four such funds by PNB.
Fixed-price funds are practically risk-free as investors get back whatever they put in if or when they redeem their investments. On top of that, you get generous returns of 7% to 8% every year. It is a very good deal indeed but on the other side of the coin, the actual value of the underlying investments is unknown, unlike other unit trust funds where you know the value of your investments at any point in time. The balance sheets of fixed-price funds are not disclosed in their annual reports, and the Securities Commission, the body governing the unit trust industry, grants these funds various exemptions from its guidelines on unit trust funds.
How can a fund keep paying 6%-8% a year in dividend, invested 60%-90% in local equities, and will always have a fixed price of RM1 NAV. You cannot get that anywhere else, can you? Is anybody even a bit curious? PNB is not almighty. What about the 1997-1998 Asian crisis, the Internet meltdown, the 9-11 period, the SARS debacle, and the very recent subprime global meltdown ... surely we all saw that equity prices were hammered for an extended period.
The way PNB would argue is that they do income smoothing, or something along those lines. That in good year, say they get an 11% return, they will keep some of the gains and declare only 7% in dividends. The excess would go into a special performance account to top up future years that they do not have stellar dividends. That sounds alright except that you still did not know the exact real NAV of these funds.
PNB could very well be paying 6%-8% dividend every year on these fixed price funds but the real NAV may be deteriorating below RM1.00, and we don't know because its not known. Should we be concerned if the actual collective real NAV of these fixed priced funds were to be say RM0.97, RM0.93 and RM0.88 for 2006, 2007 and 2008 respectively??? We can only assume that their real NAV is healthy.
In good or bad markets, the funds have consistently returned steady dividends in the high single digit. But the fact is, the returns are lower today than in the 1980s and 1990s when dividends and bonuses were in the double-digit realm (as high as 20% for ASN in 1981). But no one is complaining about the 7% to 8% annual return today considering that investments in the fixed-price funds are essentially risk-free — you get your principal back when you sell your units.
PNB is a unique institution. I can understand how they can generate double digit return in the early years (PNB was established in 1979). Pernas, which had been acquiring public-listed companies under foreign control, was compelled to transfer 13 of its companies, including Sime Darby Bhd and Malaysia Mining Corp Bhd, to PNB at cost. Malayan Banking Bhd was transferred to PNB after Bank Negara Malaysia stepped in to restructure the bank in 1967 following a bank run, which wiped out 40% of its deposit base. PNB also benefited from grants and interest-free loans from the government to facilitate the acquisitions. By 1989, PNB had transferred to ASN sizeable stakes in various listed entities. Similarly, ASB’s assets comprised those transferred from PNB. Furthermore, as a bumiputera institution and one of the biggest institutional investors in town, PNB is said to have been allotted shares in companies en route to listing at attractive prices, given the need to meet the 30% bumiputera shareholding requirement.
In the 90s PNB still had its channels as many big companies got listed, and IPOs generally performed outstandingly during the early 90s bull run. Over the last few yers, these mega IPOs have dried up. PNB will now have to rely on corporate finance and restructuring to generate value to its stable of companies. Hence, arguably, the Sime Darby's mega plantation scheme is the start of many more projects under PNB's auspices. PNB will now have to consolidate its stable of companies, put them into synergistic groupings to create more value. All that is very necessary to continue to support these fixed priced funds that still give 6%-8% dividend income every year and can always be redeemed at RM1.00 par.
So, the scepticism over PNB's ability to maintain these returns is genuine and needed to be asked. As to whether they can do it depends on execution, the advisors they have, and how astute they are at not just managing funds but including appointing the right people to manage the synergies and put the collective resources to work. Sime Darby is still digesting the huge plantation firms acquired. It is imperative that PNB maintain a very high standard of professionalism in its retention of top management executives in running these merged entities. PNB has to minimise the political interference to have political appointees - it has to manage with clear transparency with global best practices as their mantra.
The next big project for PNB has to be its many property companies under its stable. PNB have SP Setia and Mah Sing, and its stakes in these companies have been "rising strategically". In contrast, PNB has accumulated almost 20% in Mah Sing and has direct and indirect interests of close to 32.9% in S P Setia. Another company that PNB has bought a stake in is I-Bhd, where it has 18.1%. Sime Darby Property could be better placed in a property conglomerate as it has the largest landbank in the country. Sime Darby’s landbank in the Klang Valley stretches from the Guthrie Corridor in the north of Selangor, to Putrajaya, Seremban and Port Dickson. The 37,000 acres in its landbank is about as big as Kuala Lumpur and three times the size of Putrajaya.
PNB took Petaling Garden Bhd, Island & Peninsular Bhd and Pelangi Bhd private between 2005 and 2007. The three collectively own 7,200 hectares of land. Apart from land, PNB also has buildings in prime locations that can easily be packaged into a real estate investment fund (REIT). Within its fold is also Syarikat Perumahan Pegawai Kerajaan Sdn Bhd (SPPK), which has a good property development record. Because of its huge landbank, Mah Sing and S P Setia are said to be possible vehicles for PNB to unlock value.
It looks increasingly like PNB want Sime Darby to concentrate on plantations. Hiving off SDP to a merged Mah Sing-SP Setia vehicle would probably yield great value to Sime Darby and ramps up PNB's control in Mah Sing-SP Setia. PNB holds about 53% stake in Sime Darby, which wholly owns Sime Property.
Imagine if PNB injects the three property developers – Island & Peninsular Bhd, Petaling Garden Bhd and Pelangi Bhd – all privatised between 2005 and 2007, as well into the merged SPSetia-Mah Sing vehicle. Its a mega property concern for sure. The good thing is that it can consolidate its landbank in one major masterplan and plan much better strategically. It will be much better capitalised as well to venture into new markets with various "brands" for the right markets.
I doubt very much PNB will take SP Setia or Mah Sing private. Injecting what they have into SP Setia-Mah Sing would make much more sense. The whole shebang would require massive amount of capital for development and venturing into new markets, you wouldn't want to take that onto PNB's balance sheets as we could be talking in billions of ringgit every few years.
p/s photo: Maya Karin