Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thai government's great gambit

By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij says he was raised as a mandarin but that his economic policies are all for the people. The former JP Morgan investment banker designed and this week partially passed through the senate what promises to be the largest fiscal push in Thailand's modern history.

Oxford-educated Korn, 44, says in an interview with Asia Times Online that the total 1.5 trillion baht [US $44 billion] program, including 800 billion baht worth of borrowing outside of the normal budget, is designed to lead the Thai economy over the next three years and will be "historic" in its scope and proportion. His ruling Democrat Party is touting the fiscal program's over 6,000 different projects as Thai Khem Kaeng, or Thai Strength.

The unprecedented spending comes notably at a time of exceptional Thai weakness, with the export-geared economy contracting 7.1% year-on-year in the first quarter and full year gross domestic product (GDP) projected by some private investment banks to contract by around 5%. Private consumption and investment are stuck in the doldrums, with average factory usage rates of under 60%.

Critics of the government's great gambit say many of the policies smack of influence-peddling and veiled vote-buying at a time the government's coalition partners gear up for new elections, most likely to be held in mid to late 2010. Others see repackaged versions of former exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's populist policies, which while in the opposition the Democrats sharply criticized as fiscally reckless and morally corrupt.

Thailand's economic woes have been compounded by years of political instability, which reached chaotic new proportions in April when anti-government protesters blocked roads and rioted violently in the streets of Bangkok. When the military restored order, some viewed it as further evidence that the Democrats were in league with conservative pro-establishment forces that allegedly had a hand in forming its coalition government.

In a June 25 interview with ATol's Southeast Asia Editor Shawn W Crispin, Korn countered such characterizations and outlined how the government and his ministry are willing to risk "political suicide" to close Thailand's yawning gap between rich and poor.

ATol: Your fiscal stimulus program ambitiously aims for the government to lead the Thai economy over the next three years. With the collapse of global trade and your country's heavy reliance on exports for growth, does Thailand need a new economic model and one that is more state-led?

KC: God, I hope the second part is never true. I'm not a believer of a state-led economy in the long term. In every parliamentary speech I give about the need for government action today, I always pre-empt that by saying I see this very much as a short- to medium-term state of affairs.

The mark of success of government participation in the economy is how fast it can pull back to allow for a strengthened private sector to take charge. My perspective is, and I know from experience of being in both the private and government sectors, that the public sector just doesn't spend the money as efficiently as the private sector, both in terms of knowing where the money should go and also in terms of efficiency in disbursement and usage.

I don't do so with reluctance, because I know as of today there is no other option. The Bank of Thailand tells us we have 1.7 trillion baht [roughly US$50 billion] of excess liquidity, money that is just not being used, partly because the private sector isn't investing and doesn't need the funds beyond working capital, partly because banks aren't approving loans because of heightened concerns about credit risks.

For whatever reason, the money is just sitting there and unless the government acts as the agent to put that money to good use, the economy will stall. So I have no hesitation in doing what I believe the government needs to do today, but I certainly don't see this as an ongoing operating philosophy.

ATol: Bureaucratic foot-dragging has stalled the implementation of previous government's ambitious fiscal programs. How quickly and efficiently do you think the projects can be implemented?

KC: First of all, nothing has ever been attempted of this scale or in this manner I guess by any government since the last Democrat-led government. We always seem to be on board when there is a crisis and a need for extraordinary measures.

But this time we are moving with much greater transparency, much greater speed and on a bigger scale, a historic scale: 1.5 trillion baht is about 16% of GDP, to be spent over three years. That's on top of the annual budget deficit that we will need to maintain for the next few years as well.

We specifically selected projects - some are large projects, including one or two mass transit lines and an airport expansion, for example - but also small water and road projects spread all over the country designed to create local and regional jobs. These are not transformative projects, but they are long in the waiting and designed to create jobs, inject demand into the local economy and fill that gap of efficiency at the grass-roots level.

In about 10 days, we are launching the first financial aspect of the Thai Khem Kaeng (TKK) program which is the launch of a TKK bond, a high-interest savings bond. There will be a national campaign designed on the one hand to provide a lift of the very low interest level of deposits, and also to link the general population to the government investment program, so that there is a psychological and mental linkage between the population providing the funds and for the government to make these historic investments.

ATol: Some analysts and opposition members say that certain mega-projects have been broken into smaller quanta and that smaller line items avoid the extra scrutiny required by law for projects of over 1 billion baht. How do you respond that your ministry cut down the size of projects to avoid greater scrutiny?

KC: We didn't cut up anything actually. These were projects that were already in the system waiting for funds, waiting for execution. So nothing was actually cut up. Like I said, it is a mix of large projects - the new airport wing, the double track rail linking the northeast to the southern seaboard, mass transit lines, and some large water projects, such as linking the water reservoirs in the eastern seaboard to each other - as well as small localized work projects designed to help people in rural areas. So it's a combination of all, but none of these projects were actually cut up as such.

ATol: So how much leakage do you expect?

KC: That's always a challenge. You will have seen over the past several weeks and months the government and prime minister [Abhisit Vejjajiva] in particular has shown every indication of taking this issue very seriously, within the coalition and otherwise. So the Ministry of Finance helps by providing maximum transparency to these projects. We will be up-linking all the projects on the web, including information regarding specifications and tender price, and then updating progress made. We hope that through this transparency there will be less leakage.

ATol: Some analysts have speculated that both the Democrats and your main coalition partner Bhum Jai Thai (BJT) party will deploy budgets and have designed projects in ways to bolster party popularity before new elections. How do you respond?

KC: They weren't designed that way. The projects are first of all spread to all 76 provinces, though not necessarily equally. We worked on it not from a provincial perspective, but from a project perspective, so we looked for projects that were viable and doable.

And then, almost as an afterthought, we asked so where are the projects going? And it turned out that [the northern province] Chiang Mai, which clearly isn't our political territory - we don't have any MPs there and its not seen as a stronghold - will receive the bulk of the initial money. The northeast is getting significant money, more than the [Democrat stronghold] south.

If you look at the numbers it is clear we're not favoring any particular provinces and that indicates we didn't have votes as a primary objective. However, we are hopeful that a successful implementation will make the government more popular, but that's fair enough - right?

ATol: There are competing academic notions about how effective loose coalition governments like yours are at implementing fiscal measures, particularly as ambitious as you've outlined. One argument is that they lead to fragmented policy responses because of a lack of cooperation between ministries controlled by different parties.

KC: That's fair. It's not as good as a single-party government. But then again it depends on who the single party is. Because there is a check and balance that is going on within our coalition government and the public has seen that through the press.

In many ways, this past month or two, the opposition has been invisible and policy debate has taken place within the government, with the senate's help. So, as I said it, depends on who that single party is - but nothing beats a quality single-party government.

But having said that, there is every incentive for every party involved in the coalition to go out there and spend this money according to plan. There is no good reason at all they should choose to sit on this money for the parts they are responsible. And I'm sure they won't.

ATol: How have you found, in your capacity as minister of finance, working with Bhum Jai Thai, which controls the Transport Ministry?

KC: The interesting thing is that the politics of the northeast, which is where they [BJT] are from, and the politics of Bangkok and the south, there are a lot similarities but just as many differences. We just need to understand that. Southern voters are more ideological, less concerned about projects and funds; northeastern voters are quite the opposite. No right or wrong, it just means people have different needs and expectations.

We manage the situation based upon common interests of an understanding of the fact that the country's best interests are served by ensuring we have a stable government and one that is in a position to implement the TKK strategy for at least another year. I say another year because even though it's a three-year project, the bulk of the projects will be initiated in the first year and completed within three. Once we've started these projects, even if there is a change in government, the projects are in place, the funds are in place, and the rest is just a matter of follow through.

ATol: There is a strong perception that the Democrats are more comfortable selling their economic vision to foreign audiences than to local constituencies. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party used slick political marketing and simple messages to sell his policies at the grassroots level. What is being done to communicate your economic message to rural constituencies, particularly in the northeast where elections are won and lost?

KC: What we all learned from Thai Rak Thai's mass communication strategies that were employed to popularize his policies is that communication is a necessary and important part of what governments have to do in this day and age.

We're working on a mass media program on Thai Khem Kaeng, everything we do in regards to the different projects, even the financial part with the savings bond, is partly designed to finance the program but also partly designed to get the general public involved.

Imagine there are over 6,000 projects of different nature - hospitals schools, roads, water - all over the country every project is going to be branded. Individual projects will be launched as part of the broad Thai Khem Kaeng policy. So people will know not that a road is being built, but that it's being built as part of the Thai Khem Kaeng program, by this particular government. We'll be going all out to do that.

ATol: So how much of that political marketing will mirror the marketing Thaksin did of his policies?

KC: Well, at least we'll be telling the truth.

ATol: The Democrats were highly critical of Thaksin's ramped up spending policies and populism while in the opposition. But many see vestiges of his economic legacy in several of your policies, including the sufficiency development funds and 2,000 baht handouts to low-income earners. What did Thaksin get right and how do your policies distinctly differ from his?

KC: He got the people involved, which I think is right. I'm the son of a civil servant, a Ministry of Finance civil servant, and then I was a career banker for almost 20 years, so I have the classic upbringing of the so-called mandarin class.

I've been in electoral politics for four years now, fought two elections, and I actually have an increasing not decreasing belief that the general population is more often than not right and that the elite minority, with all their rationality and reason, is often misguided in their self-beliefs.

The fact that Thaksin went out to the broad population I think will serve the country well in the long term. The problem is he did it, frankly, with false and misleading information, which is the dark side of his legacy and also turns something that could be positive for the country potentially into something that is very dangerous. Which is the kind of situation that we've had for the last year or so and this government is trying to amend.

So get the people involved, but make sure that they are properly informed, don't mislead them with false promises and distorted facts, and, above all, don't in the meantime engage in corruption. I guess what at the end of the day brought down Thaksin and people's faith in him wasn't the fact that some of his policies were flawed - and so many of them were flawed in execution, if not in conception - but the fact that at the end of the day people thought whatever good he did was all self-serving.

ATol: Do you think that foreign investors associate your government with the nationalistic policies put in place by the military appointed government installed after the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin?

KC: No, I don't think so. I mean, for example, the military government imposed capital controls and you're never going to see an ex-JP Morgan banker do that.

ATol: But there are perceptions that conservative forces aligned behind the formation of your coalition government and that the same nationalistic elements are still lingering in the background. Are you having a difficult time putting these perceptions to rest?

KC: On Monday [in the senate] we were debating against that particular conservative force, some of whom were saying why don't we just sit back and go back to sufficiency economy rather than trying to invest our way out of this crisis. We're not polarized in that way - this government is a government for unity, really.

I don't think it will be very easy for anybody to pigeonhole this particular government as being a conservative force or pro-military force or whatever. Thailand has never been radicalized and in many ways I think this government better reflects true Thailand than any previous government over the last 10 years.

ATol: To what extent is the so-called establishment an impediment to reform in this country? Are the Democrats to your mind part and parcel of that establishment?

KC: I like to think not; let me give you a concrete example. We at the Ministry of Finance are now thinking about reforming property laws. I've been told that this is something we should stay away from, that it's political suicide ... But in terms of the need to reform the way tax is collected here in Thailand, I don't think there is any doubt and so therefore I fully intend to work towards achieving this.

The bulk of our tax income comes from revenues. And there's an inherent unfairness of that as compared to collecting taxes from people's wealth and assets. There needs to be a balance - I'm not saying it should be all one way or the other. But right now only 10% of government revenue is from assets. That's far too low compared to other economies.

I took the issue and gave a presentation to party members yesterday [June 24], very interesting, lots of debate saying "don't do it because it will bring the government down"; "do it because it is fair and it will be this government's legacy"; "do it but pretend not to be doing it", all kinds of opinions. The prime minister is behind this, the timing is always critical, and proper communication is important.

I've reserved some funds in the current budget precisely because I feel there will be a need to communicate with the public on several key laws and issues. Our intention is to affect the right kind of change. I'm not here just to be here. If I can't do things that I feel need to be done I might as well be lying on a beach.

ATol: There is a perception that your government is pro-establishment, so by putting this land tax policy on the agenda you are clearly going after certain establishment interests. Is this being done purposefully to change perceptions of your government's image?

KC: Let me tell you, let me tell you. We discussed a waiver [for the land tax], to draw a line who should be netted and who should be waived. And this tells a story. If you look at agricultural land across the nation, and if we were to say that those who own land valued at less than one million baht are exempted from this property tax that would equate to an exemption of 90% of all agricultural land holdings - yet we would lose only 10% of the expected tax revenue. That tells the whole story.

If I am able to communicate, I can tell the majority of the public, "Don't worry, you're not going to be taxed." At the same time I can tell my tax authorities, "Don't worry, you'll still get 90% of your expected revenues." And I think that speaks for the unequal distribution of wealth and assets here in Thailand. That's a problem that any self-respecting government must address regardless of potential political pitfalls.

ATol: You earlier broached tax reforms that would have equally gone after establishment interests through the proposal of an inheritance tax. Why has that since fallen off the table?

KC: I'm less keen on that, I must say. First of all, I can't do two at the same time. But philosophically I feel, number one, in practice it's hard to go after the inheritance tax and the truly rich can get away with it and it will be those somewhere in the middle that will end up paying.

Secondly, if I can successfully put in place a fair asset and property tax then there is less need to tax the transfer of that asset. It doesn't matter who owns it, father or son, you'll still be taxed in a fair way and long term. So I feel one negates the need for the other.

ATol: So again are the Democrats a part of the establishment or are they taking on the establishment?

KC: Neither. We don't feel we are doing either. We are working with the entire country. We are here to work for the people. If that sometimes means we have to step on a few toes, establishment or otherwise, then we'll do so with our customary politeness, making sure we apologize in the meantime.

ATol: Other countries in the region have leveraged the crisis as a political opportunity to push difficult economic reforms to spark more domestic demand-led growth. For instance, Malaysia has liberalized many service sub-sectors and allowed foreigners to take greater equity stakes in banks and insurance companies. Why haven't we seen similar competition-promoting measures in Thailand?

KC: Funny enough, I was able to go to a launch recently of a Malaysian bank, CIMB, taking a controlling stake in a bank [Bank Thai] previously owned by the Thai state. The law has been changed to allow the minister of finance to provide a waiver for 49% foreign ownership for banks.

I am in a position whereby I have been sending out signals saying that I'm willing to consider [using the waiver] whereby I think the system and overall economy will benefit. I've also at the same time made it clear that I see lack of competition in the financial services segment as a key impediment to development of capital markets and also the banking system.

So, it's easy enough to read between the lines. We're also working on a capital market development plan which will be concluded in the next couple of months. There will eventually be some very significant signals that will be sent from that plan.

ATol: Can you give me a hint as to what signals will be sent?

KC: Well, from the basic of stock exchange commercialization, liberalization of the brokerage industry, to considering how to move towards greater ability of foreign investors to participate directly in shares of companies on the stock exchange without being encumbered by the ownership laws [that limit foreign holdings].

ATol: So then your view is that by rolling back these various foreign ownership restrictions now in place it will give the domestic economy a needed jolt and spur the private investment that your fiscal measures are actually trying to set in motion?

KC: Absolutely, absolutely. I've always thought that if you can't think of anything else, then at least make sure there is free and fair competition. I do believe in markets.

ATol: And you agree that many markets in Thailand are captive to some very large conglomerate interests that perhaps it would be better for the country if they were broken up and exposed to more competition from the outside?

KC: I'm not against large companies as long as there is no abuse or monopolistic or oligopolistic power they might have over the market. I hesitate to answer your question as posed because I think that there are situations where having large strong champions can be positive for the economy.

The problem is that we've tried to rein them in through the use of regulations [1999 Trade Competition Act], but so far regulations have not proved to be as effective as one might hope in making sure there is free and fair competition. And that might be cultural or otherwise, but that is why we are moving towards greater liberalization.

ATol: All of this is no doubt positively received by capital markets, but there is still the black cloud on the horizon of potential for more political instability. I know some in the Democrats feel that the party benefited perceptually from the chaotic street protests in April and that they tarred Thaksin's and his supporters' image.

KC: It didn't tar him, it brought him to light - there's a difference. The risk is still there, definitely. I think I can safely say that the majority of the population wishes that it wasn't still there. But I don't think we can deny the fact that there is a remaining legacy.

I don't think we can deny and have to acknowledge the fact that Thaksin, with all the financial resources he has, still feels that the only way to regain what he feels is lost is through the creation of chaos, perhaps leading to some type of a vacuum into which he can be sucked. That's very unfortunate, but as I said it shines light on his true self.

I fully believe that the current trend of his declining popularity and credibility, both domestically and internationally, will continue. We, as the government, need to remain patient, resolute and continue to work for the people. I think there's no easy short cut out of this situation. It may mean Thailand underperforms its potential until we can be free of this particular dark legacy. Our job is to work towards that.

ATol: Do you think that political stability going forward is directly related to Thaksin's access to financial resources?

KC: His access to funds is definitely an issue. The reality is, rightly or wrongly, he still has a very strong base of very organized core supporters here in Thailand, especially in the northeast and the upper north. We must acknowledge that and must address that.

Even with all the money he has, if he didn't have genuine organizational and popular support he wouldn't be able to cause as much trouble as he has caused and appears to be intending to continue to cause. So it isn't one single factor: money is important, but to say it's all about money would be doing ourselves a disservice.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at

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