In 'Teflon Thailand,' protests test a weak economy

Nov 29 2013, 19:06 IST
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As anti-government protests roil Bangkok, the president of Thailand's largest petrochemical company is already seeing scattered disruptions to business. Reuters As anti-government protests roil Bangkok, the president of Thailand's largest petrochemical company is already seeing scattered disruptions to business. Reuters
SummaryConsumer spending has slumped this year and exports are flagging amid weak global demand.

As anti-government protests roil Bangkok, the president of Thailand's largest petrochemical company is already seeing scattered disruptions to business.

"We have taken into account the possibility of prolonged political problems and we think it could hurt our businesses next year," said Bowon Vongsinudom, president of PTT Global Chemical Pcl after days of protests including the occupation of the Finance Ministry since Monday.

While Thailand's economy, Southeast Asia's second largest, typically shows remarkable resilience to political turbulence, there are factors this time around that suggest the unrest could exacerbate already softening business conditions.

Consumer spending has slumped this year and exports, worth 60 percent of Thailand's $366 billion economy, are flagging amid weak global demand. The government had pinned its hopes on offsetting those losses with record 22.3 percent growth from January to October in tourism, a sector accounting for 9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and big infrastructure spending.

That could be wishful thinking.

Images of streets crammed with whistle-blowing demonstrators seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra jar with "Amazing Thailand" tourist advertisements. About 16 billion baht ($497.82 million) has been lost through holiday cancellations this month alone, just as peak season begins, says the Tourism Ministry.

The protests could also add to delays in the injection of 2 trillion baht into the economy through infrastructure projects that have been on ice for months, bogged down in legal limbo from an opposition party challenge.

"Real concerns come via further delays in infrastructure spending and impact on tourism, the two most likely drivers of Thai GDP next year," Credit Suisse economist Santitarn Sathirathai wrote in a research note.

"These two components are likely to be sensitive to political and government stability," he said, adding that a snap election could return a weaker coalition that would struggle even more to push through big spending plans.

Thailand's baht currency, now the fourth-weakest in Asia, is another factor. Even before the protests, it looked vulnerable to the U.S Federal Reserve's expected winding down of its $85 billion a month monetary stimulus measures.

The monthly correlation between the baht and 2-year U.S. Treasury yields has been at record highs, which means the currency already looks ripe for a fall when the Fed eases its stimulus measures. So foreign investors who poured into Thailand over the past six months as they avoided more troubled markets such as Indonesia and India now have two reasons to leave: higher U.S. rates and domestic political concern.

TEFLON THAILAND

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