Wednesday 24 Apr 2024
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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on June 14, 2021 - June 20, 2021

IN his first interview as CEO of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), Datuk Seri Amir Hamzah Azizan talks about the retirement fund’s performance and what keeps him up at night. Following are excerpts of the interview.


The Edge: Your first quarter numbers are very strong, congratulations. Are you already being asked the popular question of what EPF dividends would look like this year?

Datuk Seri Amir Hamzah Azizan: I think it’s a little early to be talking about dividends. It’s only the first quarter. I must say the performance is encouraging. We enjoyed the nice ride up from the recovery in the world. I think the way that the pandemic is going, we see some light at the end of the tunnel. I think that’s what’s driving the equity market positive and it’s allowed us to be able to realise some profits. At the same time, I think my team has been very good. We’ve been able to ride on what we’ve invested in in the past. So as we rotate out of some stocks to others, we’ve been able to realise some returns. That’s helped us to shore up returns very well.


Indeed, your income from foreign investments is very high in the first quarter, 58% of your entire gross investment returns in 1Q2021. Is that quite normal for the EPF?

If you look at the EPF, we’ve always been guided by our strategic asset allocation (SAA). Part and parcel of that SAA is to have a diversified portfolio and, of course, foreign investment is a core part of the portfolio because the wider [the] range of diversification, the better chance of us getting better yield. After that is how good you are at stock picking and our [other] asset and investment picking along the way. I think that is part and parcel of what the EPF will continue to do. The asset allocation in foreign investment is always about 30% to 35% and we’ve been able to yield [good returns] because of that. There are periods of time where the market may turn and Malaysia may perform, so having a Malaysian portion would allow us to ride that upside.


At 36% of total investment assets in 1Q2021, your foreign assets are probably near record high, if not at the highest to date. Will foreign investments continue to increase?

We’re guided by the cap the board has set for us. At the moment, we are at the high side of that asset allocation for foreign investments. But the reality is, every year, in a normal year — this is a bit of an unusual year because we have the i-Sinar (Account 1) and i-Lestari (Account 2) withdrawals — we get between RM55 billion and RM75 billion of inflows [gross contributions] for reinvestment. As we have that much money to reinvest, we have to have some diversification base; we don’t have enough opportunities to put everything back here [in Malaysia]. So the foreign investment portion has been growing as a function of how fast the EPF has been growing.


So the cap foreign investment is at 36% right now?

It’s about that range.


The EPF’s fund size is almost RM1 trillion now. Do you expect the EPF to cross RM1 trillion this year?

We crossed RM1 trillion last year [on Dec 3], prior to the i-Sinar withdrawals, so this year with the contributions up again, we are optimistic we will get there again.


From the numbers released for 1Q2021, the amount of i-Sinar withdrawals is about RM30 billion less than what your predecessor was expecting. And applications for i-Sinar withdrawals are set to close end-June. Does that mean total withdrawals will be about one-third smaller than expected?

We have applications from close to 6.49 million people, of which RM57.97 billion have been approved and we’ve paid out RM50.93 billion. That means throughout the remaining part of the year, we will be paying out the remaining RM7 billion. Between now and the end of June, our members can still apply for i-Sinar. Depending on how many people apply, we will get some ride up of that number lah. So, we will see, because there is still some flexibility in terms of members’ savings that would still allow them to take out for i-Sinar.


Are there any indications that the i-Sinar deadline would be extended from June 30?

I think let’s wait until end of June. The period [for application] has not ended. We’ve seen that since the applications without conditions were introduced at the end of February, we had a big rush of applications. Then it has been tapering off. I think our members have gotten to a point where they’re comfortable with what they’ve taken out, they’re also aware that it is important for them to leave a nest egg for when they retire. I think we will see it taper off.


Can you share the average profile of people who withdraw from i-Sinar? Are they B40 mostly?

If you look at the numbers, the 6.49 million people who have withdrawn from i-Sinar are predominantly in the M40 and B40 range. They’ve taken out the money to supplement their earnings, some of them have lost their jobs, it’s allowing them to ride out the pandemic. The bulk of withdrawals are coming from them.


The EPF needed RM8.5 billion to pay 1% of dividend in 2019 and RM9.2 billion to pay 1% of dividend in 2020. From the data that you’ve seen so far, does it look like the amount that the EPF needs to pay 1% of dividend is going to rise again this year or will it taper off?

I think if you look at the total amount of assets that we had last year, we hit RM1 trillion and this year we’re currently slightly below RM1 trillion. In order to pay the same amount of dividend this year, the threshold will probably still be at about the same amount last year.


We no longer have clarity on EPF monthly inflows and withdrawals as Bank Negara no longer shares that data publicly every month since the second half of 2020. Are you able to share those figures?

As the country goes through the pandemic and the stimulus packages are being introduced, people have been using various forms to counter-balance their income base, including with i-Sinar and i-Lestari withdrawals. Our own normal withdrawals have also tapered off a bit as a consequence of people withdrawing via i-Sinar and i-Lestari. So we don’t have a normal pattern of withdrawals this year. But I think when we get back to 2022, we will come back to the normal patterns again of what we’ve seen in the past. If we look at past data within a normal year, between RM55 billion and RM75 billion is the reinvestment sum {gross contributions] that the EPF will have every year.

My worry now is not the challenge of ­i-Sinar and i-Lestari per se [to liquidity and portfolio returns] because I think the fact that we’ve been able to manage the withdrawals to date shows the strong base that we have built over the years. That’s not the challenge; if anything, it is short term.

My worry is if we look at Account 1 and Account 2, quite a number of our members have reduced the amount of savings in their Account 1 and Account 2 to levels that they cannot guarantee their retirement. It is much more important for us to look at how we can help our members to restore back their savings post pandemic. We understand that ­i-Sinar and i-Lestari were important during the period of the pandemic when people needed to supplement their shortfall in income but we’ve got to get them back to saving. Just to give you an idea, about 6.3 million people have less than RM10,000 in their Account 1, which is meant to be retirement savings. We have a total member base of 15 million and we have 6.3 million with less than RM10,000.

It’s worrying that 42% of the total membership has less than RM10,000 and if you look at Account 2, which is the amount set aside where members can access in certain instances, 9.3 million people have less than RM10,000. So they’ve used their emergency funds.

From the EPF’s perspective, it is important to bring people back to focus on their retirement funds in the future. So the challenge was not how we can manage liquidity. We could manage liquidity but the challenge is to bring people back to think what they can do for their future. And if you look at EPF guidance in the past, EPF has guided that for you to have a basic amount of savings for retirement, you must have at least RM240,000 basic savings when you retire. But if 6.3 million have less than RM10,000 in Account 1 and RM9.3 million people have less than RM10,000 in Account 2, it is a far cry from being able to hit RM240,000.


How many people are able to meet RM240,000 before and after?

If you look at the progression in Malaysia, the progression has helped. Over time, the government has lifted the minimum wage and because of that, if you are a young entrant to the EPF and you started saving when you were 18 and, without i-Sinar and i-Lestari, you could hit that RM240,000 basic recommended savings by the time you retire. But if you took out money … so what’s key now is how do we restore the savings that have been taken out for members to have that RM240,000.


There are multiple issues, even before ­i-Sinar and i-Lestari. One issue is that wages are still low on average and fixing that is a long journey. When you look at the data, what do you think can be done, realistically, by policymakers to help members restore their retirement savings?

I think the recognition that the quality of jobs and how we pay for jobs must go up so that wages in Malaysia, on a fundamental basis, go up. That’s one philosophy that the EPF would be very supportive of, should the government raise that, because it helps. With Malaysia moving to developed nation status, the current level of wages is not good enough. The data in our Belanjawanku also shows that the minimum wage will not get you to the adequacy of expenses needed to live in urban areas at this juncture, so we need to fix that wage range. That’s the policy and philosophical questions that we have. It means that the economy must transition to have higher wages rather than just high employment only, which means that upskilling and reskilling are big ticket items for the economy and I’m glad to see that it is part and parcel of the agenda for the country to reskill and upskill people to be able to get higher wages. Digitalisation is an important trend and we’re supportive of that because that will also help push up wages. From the EPF’s point of view, as we come out from this pandemic, I think encouraging people to move funds back to Account 1 would be important because it is what you put aside for retirement.


Even before the government allowed Account 1 withdrawals, there were those who reckoned that the government should shift the withdrawal age higher from age 55, since the retirement age has gone up, so that retirement savings can last longer. Is there progress on discussions on this front?

It’s a difficult conversation to have since people like to have access to their funds … But if they think it is possible that they will live longer, then they will need to think about the amount of savings they need. So although we put a minimum threshold of RM240,000, that should not be your aspiration. You should have adequate savings as opposed to minimum savings. That’s something that you can set yourself according to the lifestyle that you need.

The EPF will introduce schemes. We have the voluntary contribution scheme where you can top up. If you have a bit more ability, you want to help your siblings or children as well, we allow you to transfer money into their accounts so that they can get to that adequate savings, so while we will be supportive to push and encourage an increase in minimum wage and so on, we also want to give members the ability to also top up their savings to get there faster.

We hope to also encourage the informal sector of the economy, entrepreneurs and others, to also contribute because right now, less than half of Malaysian workforce actually contributes to the EPF.


One of the criticisms on encouraging voluntary contributions to the EPF is that the people who actually do that are people who can afford to retire whereas the people who need to be saving more do not have the money. The Edge has written about tiered dividends as a possible way to help shore up savings for members with low savings. What’s the position within the EPF and have there been discussions with the Ministry of Finance on this?

I think tiered dividends is something to think about. We need to do studies to explore possibilities along that line. But going back to the first point, 6.3 million of EPF members have less than RM10,000 in their Account 1. If you have less than RM10,000 in Account 1, no matter what percentage of dividend you get, you’re not going to get there. It means that we need to figure out how to encourage an increase, an improvement in wages so that contributions [savings] can go up. And as a fund, the EPF needs to perform. When the EPF performs, the fund will be able to pay out more dividends.

The other concept is we need to get more Malaysians to understand that the EPF is not a windfall account [where] you put aside money and by 55, let’s take it all out. More Malaysians need to understand that they need to take ownership of their own retirement and leave enough money inside. Our statistics have shown that people who take out money early finish their retirement savings within a short time, so we want to encourage members to keep their money longer.


Are more members already choosing to keep their money in the EPF after age 55?

One of the good things I must congratulate the team and my predecessors [on] is that they’ve done a good job evolving the services that the EPF offers and part of what we offer is retirement advisory services (RAS). Members come and talk to us on what their financial needs are and we encourage them to leave aside some money. They can take out as much money as they want when they hit 55, there is no restriction, but since there is no need to take out everything at once, they can leave their savings with the EPF and take out just the amount they require at that point of time because you’re more likely than not to end up with a better yield for the same fund type.


You mentioned that there is pressure on the EPF to perform better to help boost members’ savings. Yet higher risks often come with higher returns. How does the EPF balance that?

Our SAA partly covers that. When people look at the EPF, the core part is this is retirement savings so the amount of security must be higher than the return portion. That’s why when you look at our SAA, we have quite a big chunk of funds still in fixed income, which pays us steady returns over a long duration of time. Yes, we have a diversified asset base so we are able to get a right balance of portfolio risk [in search of higher yield] but it is still more fixed income than equities, which gives us a better outcome for higher yields.


Are you doing anything different in terms of investment strategy at the EPF? Any change to your SAA?

We continue to review our SAA every three years or so. That’s an ongoing process at the EPF. As we see how markets evolve and as we learn new things and have better capabilities, we refine our SAA.

One of the uncertainties in the market post-Covid is in the real estate market. The EPF managed to secure some quality assets early overseas, including office assets in countries like the UK that gave good yields earlier on.


What’s the EPF’s view on how the market is going to treat commercial and office real estate in the new normal?

Yes, there are challenges but the sector is not homogeneous. There will always be differentiation in terms of segments within a sector. In the EPF’s portfolio, the logistics parts of the sector have done very, very well despite Covid-19 because there is fresh demand.

Of course, if you look at commercial office space, that’s challenging because of people working from home. Some clients have asked to terminate contracts and we have to adjust [to the reality] that some portions of the workforce may never come back to full-time work at the office. So, commercial office space will see a drop in demand. What’s key for the EPF is to actually be sure-footed enough to pivot the portfolio into the right areas because not all real estate is bad. There are sectors that will do well and we want to look at how we can move into those areas. There are also geographical differences. The ability of the EPF to pick [the right mix] will give us better yield. Again, diversification has value. It has paid off well for the EPF and we will continue to do that.


Is there a need to write off the value of certain assets? Is that on the horizon or it has already been looked at?

We’ve had a very robust portfolio. If you look at the 1Q2021 numbers, total impairment is only RM50 million (RM19.29 billion in gross investment income versus RM19.24 billion in net investment income). As a proportion of asset base, it is very small.


On the EPF’s foreign investments, there seems to be two schools of thought. One reckons it is inevitable for the EPF to put more money overseas as the fund grows while the other wants the EPF to bring back money and invest more locally. Where does the EPF stand and why?

We are guided by our SAA. Our SAA is very clear in terms of the minimum, maximum and median. In areas like equities that have performed well, we are at the top range of our SAA while in some other areas, we are below. In terms of balance, how much money should be in Malaysia versus outside is opportunity driven. As opportunities open up, we will consider because we have to assure members of the returns. If we see good investments in Malaysia, we are not going to run away from that. But if there are good ideas presented to us for external [outside Malaysia] and we have space in our SAA, we will invest. The key thing for us at the EPF is having the right mix and mandate for us to trade [and realise returns].

In Malaysia, we see opportunity, for example, in the private equity space where there is a gap. A lot of money has been put into the VC (venture capital) side. The government has set up a lot of VC funds but follow-on investments from that are a bit light … there is a gap between [initial funding on the VC side] and the leg when they [investee companies] go for listing. So, the EPF is putting aside some money from the Malaysian perspective to facilitate good yield returns to invest in that segment, but we’ve got to be smart. We are not a pure PE (private equity) fund, I’m not a TPG, KKR and so on but I can, through relations with those parties, induce them to come and help us here in terms of expertise and capability [to expand this segment]. That’s a strength of the EPF. Investing a lot of money internationally has also built long-standing relationships with these people. If we can create the right mandates between us and these people, that’s where we can find a win-win and create good business opportunities with good yield for members. And if we can also support Malaysian growth at the same time, that will be the sweet spot.


PE-type investments seem to be a lot higher risk than what the EPF usually invests in. Unlike real estate, where cash flows can be predicted and locked in, there is no such certainty when it comes to PE-type investments. Even if an investee company can potentially go for IPO a few years down, there is no guarantee [of there being returns]

Yes, there is no guarantee … but if you look at how much money we actually allocate to this space, in relative terms, it is still a very small part of the portfolio. On a global basis, it is less than 2% to 4%. Even if I create a mandate, say, RM1 billion in Malaysia, it is still small from the overall portfolio point of view. The key is to continue having the discipline, when we say our financial expectation of yield is this amount and we would only put in money if that expectation is met, we hold to that framework.


What kind of thresholds are you looking at? It has to be pretty high, right, since PE investments are high risk [relative to other asset classes the EPF is invested in]?

My PE yields from an overall fund point of view, Malaysia and international, is more than double digits historically. It is a less liquid-type asset, therefore returns have to be much higher. Our track record has indicated that we’ve been able to yield that.


How much is invested in PE?

It’s small, 2% to 4% of the entire portfolio. We’ve invested in PE funds for quite a while now.


Back to the lockdown, the EPF had a rare monthly net withdrawal due to i-Lestari in the middle of last year post-MCO 1.0. Now, we have another round of stricter lockdown. Do you see a monthly net withdrawal happening again?

The i-Lestari withdrawals were introduced last year to help people ride out the tough times, giving members access to Account 2. It became more problematic when access was given to Account 1 as opposed to Account 2. We had a dip when no conditions were imposed on Account 1 in February and people took out a big chunk in the beginning. But like I said earlier, and you see it in the 1Q2021 numbers, the liquidity challenge was not impossible for the EPF to overcome because it has a good SAA that gives us the flexibility to manage the situation. And we’ve been able to manage it.

There is talk of the GDP forecast for 2021 being revised downward due to MCO 3.0 and many people say they need help again. Are there areas that the EPF can further assist the government and members?

At the end of the day, the i-Sinar programme is still in operation. Members can still apply until end-June, depending on their needs and capacity … there is also a difference between MCO 1.0 last year and MCO 3.0 where the government has been a lot more practical in terms of balancing the need for the economy and the need to curtail the spread of Covid. We also have light at the end of the tunnel in MCO 3.0 with the vaccination programme. We can see a path where the economy will be in a better state and potential freedom from lockdown that we could not see in MCO 1.0, where the need for intervention was much deeper because there was a lot more uncertainty. There is a lot more clarity today. The economy is also still moving in MCO 3.0.

For the EPF, it is a difficult balance. Today, the EPF roughly covers only half the population we should cover because of the informal sector. And the informal sector is the worst hit as opposed to the formal sector. That’s why when we look at EPF contributions, the amount of money collected, including collection of delayed payments, they are actually in better shape this year than what people predicted because the formal sector is not as badly hurt. It is the smaller, informal sectors that have really hurt. Unfortunately, they’re not members of the EPF. So even if the EPF wanted to help, it is not within the fund’s ability to help. That’s something the government needs to think through very carefully, which is why one of our focuses in the future must be how do we widen the net so that we have better social protection for everybody, so that everybody has some money set aside for a rainy day and their retirement.


How is the EPF pushing for this wider social protection to happen?

We hope to get the government’s support. For the gig economy today, we are allowing voluntary contribution. We’re getting our people to be very active to go out and encourage Grab drivers, delivery riders to put aside a little bit. It doesn’t matter what amount because a little is better than nothing. We are working with employers so that they understand it is actually good practice to build for the long term and it is a differentiating factor for them if they actually offer that to employees.


Does the RM60,000 cap for voluntary contribution apply to them?

No, the RM60,000 cap applies to people like me. I have 11% of my salary deducted. I can increase that 11% to 15%, 20% or even 100% because that is a contribution (via salary deduction). But what I can’t do is in a year decide that I want to top up my savings by RM100,000 because there is a RM60,000 cap [per annum].


Sorry, I was referring to people in the informal sector who may not have a fixed salary for monthly deductions…

They can still contribute. A Grab driver, for instance, can work with the employer to set aside a certain percentage every month as a deduction and the RM60,000 cap [per annum] would not apply. It encourages people to regularly save.


Back to your investments, your predecessor spoke quite a bit on ESG investing, and ESG was one new area of focus you spoke on at Tenaga. What is the EPF’s investment stance on ESG?

I think there is enough research to show that companies that practise good ESG actually perform better than market return. If you talk to companies that have been dramatically hit by ESG considerations, some of them have seen their share prices take a beating because foreign investors have pulled out. Does that mean not following ESG has a penalty? I think that’s beginning to show that if you don’t follow good ESG practices, there is going to be a price to be paid.

At the EPF, our practice is that we do screening. For every major investment that we do, we go through a screening process to see whether the investee company has good practices. Our international investments are a lot easier because the maturity of ESG practices are a lot higher, so we are stricter: if you are a non-ESG company, we won’t invest in you because I’ve got a lot of opportunities to invest elsewhere.

In Malaysia, should we also not do that? We are not as mature but what the EPF can do is encourage them effectively. We want to see them make commitments for the future. We don’t expect them to be compliant overnight. As long as there is a path to show they are moving in the right direction, then the EPF can say we are comfortable enough to remain invested. If we don’t see any movement, we have to decide because there could be value destruction for us. And we have [sold] some.


Would Tenaga be among investee companies where the EPF would want greater clarity on ESG commitments?

It’s something that we are working together with the investee company, first to understand that this is coming and real and cannot be ignored. It is also to give them comfort that just because there is a gap, it doesn’t mean the EPF can’t invest in you. But you need to realise that this cannot be for the long term and there needs to be clarity on when they can ease out things like substitution so that you create sustainable long-term businesses. When we can see that, we are happy. If we cannot see that, we will continue to put a lot of pressure. Ultimately, it would be a choice of whether we trade down the shares or not.


The EPF is an institution built to run well. On the other hand, it’s very different from the entities you’ve been with so far. What are the management challenges you face coming to head a very big fund like the EPF?

Different people bring different things to the table. My career has been one where I’ve had a lot of exposure in operating environments and I hope to bring some insights on how the operating environment can help an organisation like the EPF because there are commonalities. Whether we like it or not, the EPF has people inside it and people need to have clarity on where they want to go and so on. At this juncture, as we try to widen our mandate, I hope to bring some capability to help the EPF in its journey. And I hope from an investment point of view, to have the capacity to share insights from the operating environment, so our decisions become richer. At the same time, I’m learning what makes the EPF unique. With a blend of both, hopefully, we will do better.


What keeps you awake and what makes you come to work at the EPF?

At the end of the day, I think we have a lot of opportunities to make life better for our members because the scale of operations that we have can be tapped to do new things that people didn’t expect us to do. For instance, my reach is pretty good — 15 million members. Not all members are the same; I’ve got very rich members with millions in and I’ve got poor members with only RM5,000 to RM10,000 in their accounts. Their needs will be very different. For the people with less than RM10,000 in savings, for instance, we could look at offering some basic protection mechanism for them because we’ve got scale.

If we are able to work together so that we become stronger partners to our members, so that we become more relevant to our members throughout their life, members would not just think of us when they are about to retire.

On the other side of the scale, you could have a lot of funds and you like the EPF’s track record, for instance, but may have a different investment risk appetite and profile [than general members]. We could have differentiated offerings to these members, perhaps I could create different funds for them to cater for different risk profiles. So, I have a tremendous amount of space that we can explore but we’ve not actually articulated that to members just yet. I see that as a wide clean sheet of paper that we can start painting on. I’m excited about the fact that at the end of the day, we can make a huge difference.

For what people may say about i-Sinar and i-Lestari, yes, we recognise it was a challenge to the EPF and it shook us to the core when we were asked to look at Account 1 withdrawals, but we cannot ignore the fact that we did good for the guy who did not have funds to survive the down cycle. The fact that he could get access to funds to survive, we made a difference to that person’s life, right?


How soon can these differentiated offerings be introduced to members?

We are working towards it. My investment team is looking at the models that can actually work right now. Within the next year, year and a half, you will see a tangible playout of how things can happen. The protection scheme can be sooner than that.

If you look at what we are doing to help employers, we will be launching our new payroll scheme for employers this month (June) where we will give SMEs a payroll system which they can use and the transfer of data to the EPF will be automatic. It will no longer be the hard manual way that they are used to. This is digitalisation that adds value to the employers and also the EPF.


If your tenure at the EPF is not as long as you want it to be, what is the one thing you want to achieve?

I think the big ticket item for me is clarification of the mandate. If we can get clarity on the mandate within the next year or so, it would sort out the ‘where you want to go’ and translate that to executable plans. With that, the chances of achieving [the mandate] is higher. If I can help the organisation to get that, it will be a big thing. After that will be execution and baking values into the culture of the organisation.


This ambiguity on mandate, does it stem from the EPF’s desire to do more than what it was originally set up to do?

I think it is a natural evolution for the EPF because at the end of the day, our mandate always has the concept of social protection. But because the environment that we are in is actually changing, the businesses come in with a lot of different elements. The EPF must evolve to cover all that. In doing that, we also look at how we can make ourselves much more relevant to members throughout their lives, not just when they retire.

Effectively, if you think back, the EPF has been doing that all along. When I first started working 30 years ago, we could only access our EPF account every five years. But over the years, we’ve created Account 2 to allow members to access funds when it is material and threatens the well-being of your life, health, or when you want to improve yourself through education and, hopefully, make Account 1 bigger so that you get a better nest egg. So, we’ve figured out where we can be better for members and I think we have that opportunity to do more — not just by widening the social protection net but also making ourselves more and more relevant to members.


Is there anything you would like to say to EPF members who may be concerned about dividends going forward due to the withdrawals and how Covid-19 has impacted the world? For members who have had to take out money, is there anything that the EPF can do for them?

Our 1Q numbers show that the EPF is a very resilient fund. Even if you go to the 2020 performance, the EPF performed during bad times. That’s because we have managed with strong processes, guided by our SAA and very good people. You have a good institution taking care of your money, continue to be with us. We will continue to work hard for you as we have done in the past.

For members who have had to access their savings, I hope that members will look to us on how they can work towards restoring their funds. We’re happy to be able to help them during the difficult period, but they also have to remember that at some point, they will go into their golden years and we want them to go into their golden years in a better form, and we want to work together to see how we can improve that. That may mean they have to make hard choices. They may have to make a hard decision to save more, and we want to help them make the right choice.


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