September 23, 2017
Bank Negara Malaysia Forex RCI – what it has, and has not, established
No Longer Deputy Chairman, Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Finally. He may end up carrying the can. But that is purely academic; the foreign exchange loss incurred by Bank Negara Malaysia is real–some RM30 billion
QUESTION TIME | Three people collectively knew of what exactly transpired in Malaysia’s RM31.5 billion foreign exchange losses, but the demise of one of them results in a missing piece of evidence which would have provided the link in the chain of accountability as to who was ultimately responsible.
Even as the first casualty of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into Bank Negara Malaysia’s (BNM) foreign exchange losses occurs, it is clear that the commission has not established much going by the proceedings which ended two days ago.
If the political intention in the setting up of this inquiry, or inquisition as some have called it, is to ascribe blame to and imply benefit to some – especially the Prime Minister at the time, Dr Mahathir Mohamad – it has not been conclusive.
But the extent of the losses to the country is clear – RM31.5 billion between 1991 and 1994, given to the RCI by a BNM staff member. Even this piece of vital information was in the public realm for some time, although it is good to have clear confirmation now.
The difference between the situation at BNM (highly irregular and speculative trading by the central bank) and 1MDB (alleged theft) are quite different even if the amounts involved are of the same order of RM30 billion. No one except the counterparties to BNM’s trade, including currency trader George Soros, benefited from the massive positions taken by BNM.
It was also established that there were attempts to hide the extent of losses, widely reported at the time to be just RM5.7 billion, going by the deficiency in shareholders’ funds of BNM for 1993. In fact, the RCI was told by a BNM official that several papers involving the losses were classified under the Official Secrets Act. But it was not established who decided to classify the documents.
There were gaps in terms of the chain of command that led to the losses which the RCI was not able to fill. Former Bank Negara advisor Nor Mohamed Yakcop said he accepted his fair share of accountability over the foreign exchange (forex) losses incurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But he said he never discussed the forex transactions in the years between 1986 and 1993 with both the then Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Prime Minister Mahathir, which if true, absolves them of blame for the losses.
“The forex losses occurred, there is no denying it. There is also no denying my accountability for the forex losses. I accepted my fair share of the accountability and resigned from Bank Negara.”
Nor Mohamed became the first casualty of the RCI as he resigned his Deputy Chairman’s position at Khazanah Nasional Bhd, the government sovereign fund which he had helped nurture back into capability and trust starting in 2004 under previous Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
He had been under political pressure to finger Mahathir over the forex scandal but he steadfastly refused to do so.
He issued a document of nearly 4,000 words to the RCI, which makes compelling reading, outlining the events leading to BNM’s forex trading activities.
“Prior to 1985, BNM was not active in external reserves management, including forex trading, given the relative stability in the international foreign exchange market.
“The situation changed in 1985. On 22 September 1985, five OECD countries met in private at the Plaza Hotel in New York and decided among themselves, without consulting other countries, that the yen and the German Deutsche mark should be strengthened significantly against the US dollar by way of market intervention,” he said.
This was the exact same argument given by Mahathir as I explained in this article when he justified BNM’s interventions in the currency market.
“If the political intention in the setting up of this inquiry, or inquisition as some have called it, is to ascribe blame to and imply benefit to some – especially the Prime Minister at the time, Dr Mahathir Mohamad – it has not been conclusive.”–P. Gunasegaram
Bernama reported on November 5, 1990: “Speaking to reporters after delivering a keynote address at the 17th Asian Advertising Congress here, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir said, ‘We are stabilising our own currency.
“‘When they do something it is always alright. We are trying to protect our currency. We have lost a lot of money before when they revalued their currency like the yen. We lost a lot of money because we borrowed yen, when they devalued their currency we also lost money.
“‘So what is wrong with our protecting our own interest, why is it when they can protect their interest and we cannot. I cannot understand this.’”
That’s clear indication he condoned currency trading by BNM. Of course, that does not necessarily mean Nor Mohamed would have taken instructions from Mahathir, although they were on the same page in their views.
The person who Nor Mohamed reported to was Jaffar Hussein, then BNM Governor. He quoted Jaffar’s speech which advocated active intervention in the forex markets to manage reserves, to indicate that Jaffar was the main architect of the policy. Mahathir too put the responsibility of the forex trades on Jaffar.
Said Nor Mohamed in his statement: “I need to elaborate on this point because Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein is no more with us, and it is important that we recognise the wisdom of this great man. The Governor believed that by active management of the external reserves, we will be able to acquire the skills, knowledge and experience required to serve the nation, when required, both in developmental activities as well as to overcome any financial crisis that the nation may face in the future. He termed this as ‘market expertise’.
“Indeed, Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein’s foresight regarding market expertise saved the nation during the 1997/1998 financial crisis. In a strange twist of history, the skills, knowledge and experience acquired in BNM enabled the nation to implement the Unorthodox Measures of September 1998.”
And Nor Mohamed went on to enumerate how he used this “expertise” to help rescue the country from the ravages of 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and saving the country hundreds of billions of ringgit.
However, former Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim, now an ally of Mahathir under Pakatan Harapan, fingered Nor Mohamed as the person most responsible and had wanted him sacked.
Anwar said Nor Mohamed was found to have overstepped his boundaries following the forex losses.
“He did not report the true picture to him (Jaffar). I instructed that Nor Mohamed be sacked, if possible, by 4pm (on the day of the meeting). If he didn’t resign, I would have sacked him.”
Asked about Nor Mohamed’s comments about learning a lesson, he was scathing: “His assertions are absurd. You must be accountable. It doesn’t have to cost the country billions to learn a lesson. He should go back to business school (to learn a lesson),” said Anwar.
Mahathir similarly laid the blame on Jaffar. Citing a meeting with Jaffar, he said he was informed verbally by the then governor that BNM could strengthen the country’s reserves and currency through forex trading. Jaffar’s decision to go actively into forex trading, said Mahathir, was not made with his knowledge.
“As Prime Minister, I was never involved in Bank Negara’s administration and I believe that I was not permitted under the law to get involved in its policies and affairs.”
Mahathir, however, says this does not mean that the Governor, then, never talked about the central bank in general terms.
According to Nor Mohamed, in his written communication to the RCI, he was tasked with implementing the external reserves management policy as determined by the BNM’s board.
“…I reported both to the Governor and the External Reserves Committee (ERC). I spoke to the Governor on external reserves management regularly, and certainly whenever there was a large movement in the exchange rates. I also reported to the ERC whenever it met. The membership of the ERC comprised, amongst others, the Governor, Deputy Governor, and the Advisors. Further, there were weekly Senior Officers Meeting, where the external reserves matters were sometimes discussed.”
However, then deputy governor of BNM Lin See Yan has a different story to tell. Lin told the RCI he was first informed about the losses by the former bank Special assistant to the Governor, Lee Siew Kuan.
He also said he was then informed about the losses by “friends from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)”. “They told me ‘we know you have made open positions and you have made big losses, please stop it’.” Both Lin and Lee then went to see Jaffar whom Lin said had confirmed the losses.
“We asked how big the losses were, he said he was not sure.”
Jaffar, said Lin, had then agreed that Lee, with the help of former Bank Negara Assistant Governor Abdul Murad Khalid, were to then carry out preliminary investigations immediately. The investigations then had found that Bank Negara had large open forward positions in multiple currencies which meant that the bank would suffer more losses.
“As a central banker, (for me) the risk was not acceptable,” said Lin.
Meantime former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, during whose tenure from 1985 to 1991 BNM started engaging in active forex trading, denied any knowledge of forex dealings, raising the question as to who the instructions came from. Daim also said if he knew about the forex trading, he would have stopped it.
Mahathir, as explained, is likely to have known and sanctioned BNM’s orthodox foreign exchange activity. The three people who would have known for sure the chain of authority are Mahathir, Nor Mohamed and Jaffar. Mahathir and Nor Mohamed’s accounts to the RCI implicate Jaffar, who is not here to defend himself.
The RCI is expected to complete its probe within three months from the date of its setting up on July 15 and thereafter submit its report to the Agong.
But unfortunately, there are not many conclusions that it can make considering that the RCI comes 25 years too late. What is clear is RM31.5 billion in losses were made.
What is not clear is how they were made and why certain people were given so much authority to trade way beyond the normal acceptable limits for a central bank. No central bank has before or since lost more money on trading than BNM.
The answers will continue to be in the realm of conjecture and circumstantial evidence. There can be little doubt that Nor Mohamed was doing what he thought was best for the country. But it should have been very clear to him that he was taking a large risk because the losses would have been massive – and turned out to be so – if his bet was wrong.
Was he acting entirely on his own when he took that bet? Is it likely he consulted no one before he made his bets? Who gave him the go-ahead to make such unprecedentedly large bets? Did he exceed the limits set by BNM? Were there any limits?
Was Jaffar indeed the architect of BNM’s forex policy? Remember, his background was accountancy – he was a partner at PwC. He was known to be conservative when he was CEO of Malayan Banking. Was he protecting someone when he took the rap?
This hastily convened RCI, which has a couple of months to complete its report and recommendations, is not going to answer all these questions satisfactorily.