GERALDINE SSALI | REVIEW: NSSF Letter to Finance Minister

Former NSSF MD Geraldine Ssali

Former NSSF MD Geraldine Ssali

Good afternoon Sir. Yesterday you asked for my opinion on the letter NSSF wrote to the Minister with regards to the Covid-19 relief for its members: Paying of 20% of each member’s balance.

I’m not sure if the minister also asked Management to indulge in the Macroeconomic impact of this “transaction” but I think that would be MoFPED and Central Bank to competently handle Macroeconomic policy and give the final position. NSSF management should concern themselves with their primary strand of responsibility- providing social security to it’s members.

There’s a school of thought on the theory of the half glass. Basically stating that the Optimistic mind (sighting opportunities and possibilities) sees the glass half full and the Pessimistic mind(seeing difficulties, impossibilities and challenges) will always see the same glass half empty!

A quick scan of the document would suggest the Fund’s managers have decided to fall under the later, in order to discourage such a proposal from ever seeing the light of day.

An optimistic Fund manager, on the other hand, would have used this opportunity to (“do what it says on the tin”) and entice/attract a bigger (including voluntary savers) membership to the Fund by demonstrating their relevance and usefulness to existing members at such a time when most governments are extending financial assistance to their vulnerable citizens in form of social welfare programs- I trust you have been following at International level so I shall not belabour ……….

Of course, the UGX 380 m that NSSF gave to the National Task Force efforts under the Prime Minister’s office was appreciated by the country at large but now its core members need NSSF support for some of their money to bail them out as they struggle to sustain their families and meet their day to day obligations.

The Fund management in citing dire negative economic consequences is stealthily and technically avoiding their natural responsibility – The purpose and cause on which NSSF was formed. Any systemic economic risk that was meant to happen due to the global pandemic, Covid-19, is happening right now and there’s nothing NSSF can do about it.

This risk is already crystallising in the Ugandan market and every player in the market will feel its heat! So whatever must go wrong is going wrong as we speak. However, the non- systematic risk anticipated by the Fund managers prior to COVID- 19 can be hedged by simple instruments going forward. For example, if the treasury desk officers find that their asset interest rates are falling, they can acquire a liability whose interest rate will offset any loss on that asset.

There are simple Zero cost financial instruments being offered by banks in our market like Stanbic, Stanchart, Equity and the like. I’m fully aware that the Fund has got a risk management framework, that takes into account scenarios and simulations like “a run on the Fund” and any competent crisis management plans would have been put in place to cater for such contingencies as standard procedure for any given financial or quasi financial institutions in this market.

So the net Cash of UGX 2.5 Trillion needed within the next one year (12 months) to fulfil this obligation, boils down to affordability, without any political innuendo or undertones.

Going by the content of the letter you shared and their last published Financial statements of Financial Y/E June 2018/19, my unbiased/unprejudiced thoughts are as follows:-

In order for NSSF to fulfil the liquidity needs of 20% of member balances alluded to, they would need to look at their liquidity position. First the UGX 125 Bn tacked away in reserves for a rainy day; it’s raining now! Secondly, the Current assets at about UGX 280 Bns are immediately available if they chose to operate an Accident and Emergency system – it attends to the most fatal not who came first or who is more important. Like a case by case basis.

Secondly, those Government Securities held by the Government of Kenya that are over a UGX 1 Trillion! In a nutshell, this is Ugandan saver’s money being used to build Kenyan infrastructure, and this is okay!

Thirdly, a phased liquidation of their treasury bills, bonds and Fixed deposits within the Ugandan market. This assured fixed income albeit with different maturity tenures falling under 3 – months, 6- months, 1- year, 5 years, 10- years, etc. They would have dive in and look at these assets concurrently with the monthly contributions they collect from members.

These assets never have the same maturity times. This asset class accounts for over 70% of the whole investment portfolio of NSSF so a phased transaction can be used to cushion any negative effects anticipated on this asset class alone without needing to touch the real Estate and Equities classes.

The payments required for the fulfilment of the contractual obligations under the real estate contracts ( which contracts normally span over 5-years plus, are already planned for and fall under business as usual. Management is not required to pay 100% of these obligations upfront in one year and each contract has pre-negotiated terms in case of delayed payments.

Never mind that an average NSSF saver will not be able to afford those houses for example in Lubowa. You heard right, 75% of the Fund is owned by 100K members (who are 4% of members) who probably already own homes anyway.

This lot may not even need their 20% at this time. The Fund collects UGX 100 bn cash from savers every month and only approximately 3% of this goes to paying monthly benefit claims to members. The rest of the cash can also be added on the 20% settlement.

There’s an artificially amplified impact on the Ugandan economy. Uganda’s GDP alone without crossing to the rest of East Africa is currently USD 27.46 Bn (UGX 92.7 Trn). The UGX 2.5Tr (20%) is a mere 3% of this but would still be spent and re-invested within the economy by its members without significant economic leakages. This is still a boost in the economy because more money in circulation to buy goods in the market. The impact of this pay out on exports as NSSF suggests is decimal because no one knows for sure how much of that money once paid, would be channeled towards exports, sufficient enough to cause an impairment on our Balance of Trade/Payments position as a country. Uganda’s economy is said to be growing at 6% p.a. Core inflation is currently running at 3.4 % and with all the projected doom as a result from Covid -19; is projected to stand at 4.6% in 2021! A difference of only 1.2%. Uganda has in addition along all the other EA countries got a lot of external budgetary support coming to a total of UGX 3.2 Trn. The total effect of all this should be enough to mitigate any shock in the market resulting from a cash outflow of UGX 2.5 Trn. It should be mentioned that most of this money is coming in as the much needed USD and EUROs forex. The spokes person for Bank of Uganda and MoFPED must throw more light on this aspect.

From a human perspective alone, when I weigh the cost of defaulting on a real estate project, the so called “damage” to the east African securities markets, the sell of securities at a discount against the UGX 2.5Tr ( 3% of GDP) and the Financial reporting implications alluded to by the Fund’s management AGAINST the need to bail out Fund members with a small amount of their own hard earned savings needed to survive, I feel the very purpose of the Fund’s existence has been obliterated the inept mindset of the Fund’s management that’s contingent on chance survival and smoke screens!

The citation of Jamwa’s case totally has no place in this debate. I’m not a lawyer but as you know, ignorance of the law has never been a defence. This precedent has been misinterpreted in this case and misapplied. Every situation is unique and carries unique merits, context and circumstances.

If the Fund’s managers, in this case, chose to exit a financial position on any securities in the market prior to Maturity to acquire liquidity in order to save lives, the courts of law would apply the Spirit of the law and not literally or mischievously interpret the law to lock them up! A legal opinion can be officially sought by NSSF from the Attorney General’s office or even from their own external lawyers! You can further consult your legal associates on this.

The Legal aspects of concern to be revisited is the aspect of retaining reserves from the annual profits made. All remaining profits after costs are supposed to be distributed. The law only allows the Fund managers to remove their operating costs and distribute the rest to the members whose money was used to generate those profits. Any retention is illegal.

Should a member exit the Fund leaving some of their earnings under reserves, they will not have benefited and that money will probably go to future members whose earnings were not used to generate those profits. One of these days a serious Member will file a lawsuit against the Fund only to expose the Fund to litigation waste of resources. They should also seek AG’s on this matter.

It’s my strong view that management at this stage must remind themselves the very justification of NSSF’s existence – to provide a social security safety net for its members whenever their social security is under threat, not single-handedly trying to save the East African Economy as they would like us to believe (sec 2.2 of the letter).

Besides, year on year, members are reminded how NSSF Uganda is the largest Fund in East Africa. This statement is always met with Thunderous applause from its members and the public at large. But what does this exactly mean to a layman who has been contributing to NSSF for the last 20 years? NSSF has to walk the walk and talk the talk! This is the time for members to size up this “largest” Fund in EA.

And for the humour: My brother T. Mirundi would say; If a man keeps preaching and boasting about his size, test that size by first asking him to buy you a small Toyota Rav 4. If he switches off his phones and relocates to another village, just know he was a Fake-master (Mufere)

For simplicity’s sake, ILO and ISSA have put forward a range of standards and guidelines that are really a whole topic for another day, but simply put, for one to be socially secure is to have a roof over your head, have a daily meal, care for medical, have some gainful employment, and an income of sorts. For example members of NSSF in companies that are economically stressed have been laid off due to the prolonged effects of the Covid-19 lockdown.

If you step out for example and go to the sugar plantations across the country, people are counting on the arrival of Posho and beans from the National Taskforce. Other people have even lost their homes due to water bodies like Lake Victoria naturally claiming their homes and other property.

Some members and their families not only starving but with rent and loan arrears and some have lost all their properties. Now if NSSF cannot come in at such a time for its desperate members, when shall they step in to “ease the noose” around their necks? Where is the better life that members have always been promised when they need it?

The Fund has sufficient headroom on profitability to play in the Fixed Income asset class without the need to call on the rest of its real estate and Equities portfolios.

The Fund can afford this transaction especially if it’s staggered over time without causing any significant negative impact. The powers that be should find the political will to pull down this facade painted by NSSF management and pay the 20% especially to those members that need it. most first. A rejection of this proposal would be anything but economic!

About Author: Geraldine Ssali Busuulwa is the former Deputy managing director of the National Social Security Fund (2011-2017)

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