* Analysts now ask: Can SEC regulate the Central Bank?
The government earlier this week exposed how regulations are changed so that the custodian of the Employees’ Provident Fund, the Central Bank, could invest in banking stocks listed on the Colombo bourse, where it was earlier not allowed on ethical and legal grounds.
With the Central Bank investing in equities, analysts ask whether or not the Central Bank fell under the jurisdiction of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The Central Bank came in for heavy criticism, not just by politicians, but by the business community and civil society, over its dealings in the stock exchange. Its credibility came into question and the bank has often defended its stance, but never mentioned the fact that rules had been changed.
The Investment Policy Statement and Standards of Professional Conduct of EPF adopted in 2002 has clearly stated, among other matters, that the Central Bank cannot invest EPF funds in banking sector stocks as it would result in a conflict of interest because the Central Bank, as the regulator of the industry would be privy to sensitive information, leading to potential insider trading which is an offence.
But this clause has been amended in 2009, the government announced yesterday.
Deputy Finance Minister Geethanjana Gunawardene told Parliament on Thursday (7), "The investment policy statement and standards of professional conduct of EPF issued in 2002, which stated that the EPF could not invest in stocks of the banking and financial sectors, is now updated and the EPF has invested in the banking sector since 2009, following the decision taken by the monetary board."
"Unbelievable!" a staunch critic of the Central Bank’s involvement in investing EPF monies in banking stocks, UNP economic spokesman and MP Dr. Harsha De Silva told The Island Financial Review.
"For the first time CBSL has admitted they could not invest in banks. And now, the government is saying they changed policy in 2009. Why were they silent for three years? Why did they not issue an immediate media release when they are used to issuing statements against opposition MPs every other day?" Dr. De Silva asked.
The Central Bank had issued two statements in two weeks defending its stance of investing EPF funds in the banking sector, accusing Dr. De Silva of trying to destabilize the financial system with his constant criticism.
"How did the legal issues including ‘conflicts of interest’ on insider information suddenly disappear?" Dr. De Silva asked.
"When the IMF’s Brian Aitken made a statement on 13 June 2011 that ‘investing EPF funds in banking and stocks could be misconstrued and raises the potential for negative perceptions’, why did the CBSL not divulge they could do so with no problem? Why did the CBSL not inform this change to the SEC and the Market that all issues that made the Monetary Board direct the EPF not to invest funds in banks and financial institutions were no longer valid?
"Surely, the CBSL could have made this statement long before yesterday. Also, instead of an official EPF statement it was hidden inside a statement of the deputy minister. So does it mean that EPF can now invest in companies even on the second board, any company, any bank?
"I asked these questions and challenged Geethanjana Gunawardene. He went round and round and said everything was tabled, but when we called for what was tabled there was nothing there," the parliamentarian said.
"We have asked for the government to explain why they never disclosed this for three years, the new investment policy to be immediately made public along with the justification for the reversal of the earlier decision of the Monetary Board and the minutes of the meeting that arrived at this decision," Dr. De Silva said.
A former Central Banker in an article published last year have reasons why the Central Bank was originally denied the opportunity of investing EPF funds in banking stocks.
"In the first place, a central bank which has to decide on the appropriate interest rates under its main mandate of maintaining economic and price stability cannot offer the best rate of return to EPF members when interest rates have to be reduced as a stimulating economic policy in an economic recession. Second, the Central Bank being the regulator of financial institutions acts as the ‘referee’ of the financial system, but when it manages the EPF’s investment portfolio, it has to act as a ‘player’, an awkward position for a regulator. Third, the central bank being the manager of the public debt (another conflict with monetary policy objectives) has to find money for the government at the cheapest rates, but the very same central bank has to earn the highest rate of return for EPF members as the manager of its investment portfolio," former Central Bank Deputy Governor W. A. Wijewardene pointed out.
" When the Board decided to invest in the share market, a new problem came up in the form of ‘potential insider trading’ in the case of shares of banks and financial institutions supervised by the Bank. This is because, the Monetary Board, being the supervisor of banks and other financial institutions, had access to more detailed and advance information relating to them compared with other investors. Hence, if the EPF invests in the tradable shares of these institutions, the Monetary Board as the investor opens itself for scrutiny by another regulator of the financial market, namely, the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Even though the Board may have created firewalls between the investment decisions and subsequent ratification by the Board, an outsider may not view it in that flavour. Any move by EPF to buy or sell a tradable share of a bank or a financial institution may give the wrong signal to outside investors that the EPF would have done so with advanced superior information. That may create an unhealthy ‘herd behaviour effect’ in the share market and subsequently, the Monetary Board may be criticised by the market for creating that unhealthy development," he wrote in August 2010.