Monday, March 23, 2009

EPF returns on the slide: Difficult to sustain .. above 5% in coming years

Thursday March 19, 2009

EPF returns on the slide


Difficult to sustain payouts above 5% in coming years

PETALING JAYA: Employees Provident Fund (EPF) contributors may have to be contented with lower returns in the coming years as the country's biggest pension fund struggles to boost income amid steep falls in interest rates and a weak equity market.

Analysts said given the pension fund's size and strict mandate, it would be very difficult to sustain payouts of above 5% in the coming years.

The 4.5% dividend declared for 2008 on Monday was generally well received, despite coming in lower than the 5.8% in 2007.

There were calls for a review from various parties demanding a higher payout, but some quarters said the pension fund had done well in safeguarding the nation's retirement savings amid the current economic crisis.

The question now is how will EPF fare in 2009 and beyond?

Already the fund has warned that this year's payout would be less than that for 2008.

Weak equity markets will continue to hurt EPF in the near term, but in the longer term, the fund's performance will also be determined by the returns it gets from investing in low-risk assets such as government bonds.

The EPF had allocated a quarter of its RM342bil investment funds for higher yielding government papers. But as these higher yielding notes expire, the fund must purchase new issues which will now come with lower returns.

Malaysian Government Securities (MGS) debt papers maturing in three and five years are currently yielding less than 4% at today's prices.

In comparison, MGS five-year notes yielded more than 5% a decade ago and above 7% during the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis.

Another big chunk of EPF holdings is in highly rated corporate bonds and low-risk guaranteed loans.

However, the global economic turmoil has cut the supply of new bonds coming into the market.

Cheaper lending rates had also reduced interest income from loans given out.

Investment in bonds and loans made up 40% of EPF's total investments as at the end of last year.

Dwindling yields from these asset classes have been a drag on EPF's income for the past couple of years.

That the EPF was able to fork out steady dividends of above 5% between 2004 and 2007 was mainly due to gains from investments in equities.

The collapse in global equities last year, however, had eroded the value of EPF's shareholdings, forcing it to make a provision of RM4.69bil to account for the lower value of its shares, both domestically and abroad.

The KL Composite Index fell 40% in 2008 and was down 3.3% so far this year at yesterday's closing of 847.96 points.

Also, the economic slowdown has dragged down corporate profits. This, in turn, has impaired their ability to pay out dividends to shareholders, further reducing the return on investments for EPF.

The EPF has stakes in more than 100 companies listed on Bursa Malaysia, as well as smaller stakes in a number of big listed firms overseas.

Income from equities accounted for 35%, or RM6.67bil, of EPF's total gross investment income last year.

Just how bad EPF's dividend payouts will be affected by the current market situation remains to be seen.

It is worth noting that under the law, EPF has to maintain a dividend rate of at least 2.5% annually. The dividend must come from income generated from its investments.


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