Monday, December 24, 2007

Thailand's Economy - At a Crossroads?

Guest post by Claus Vistesen: Copenhagen

As we never tire of pointing out here at this space the analysis and proper understanding of the global economy and more specifically her markets demand a vigorous interaction and -play between the overall broad conceptual analysis and the more nitty-gritty country analysis. Today, and as most people, in the Western World at least, rev up for some of that most scarce and precious quality time with friends and family I feel inclined to wander off over to Thailand for one last spout of economic analysis before closing down for the holidays. Before I start I think it would be only fair to point out that I am not exactly an expert when it comes to Thailand's economy but rather I shall progress in the spirit of traditional writings here at GEM where authors attempt to aspire to the ideal and tradition of the polymath rather than towards the profile of the 'genius savant' in one specialist area.

Yet, and despite my denial of expertise in the area of Thai economics I think it is safe to say that Thailand commands a rather special place in the whole global economic framework for two main reasons. The first is strictly endogeous to political life in Thailand, where the frequency with which governments are toppled by the military only to be subsequently re-inserted (with a quick change of label), is rather high when compared with most other members of the emerging economies leading group.

The lastest example of this tendency was handed to us a little over a year ago when General Sonthi Boonyaratglin ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and declared that a military junta would stay in power for a year. Such abrupt changes of government (and of course the way of changing them) have a tendency not to go down too well with foreign investors and naturally have tended to affect the ability of Thailand to attract foreign capital inflows, as well as to act as a source of outflows. Of course, many would, at this point in time, simply exclaim that since these things are now a natural part of the political cycle in Thailand they are already well priced-in to current market premiums. I will leave this issue here and simply note that whatever importance we ascribe to the political situation in Thailand, an interventionist military is certainly part of the picture and needs to be taken into account.

The second reason for Thailand's rather special position in the international economic environment is to be found by going back to 1997 and the Asian currency and financial crisis. As I am sure many of our readers remember Thailand acted was one of the principle centres of attention during the boom phase and then one of the victims of the sudden and abrupt retrenchment of private inflows to emerging markets which occured during the Spring and Summer of 1997. This would then translate into a modern day 'once bitten twice shy' mantle and although I am unsure whether this actually applies for Thailand it serves us well always to remember that debating capital flows in the context of Thailand always will tend to have that historical glow around it.

Where now for Thailand?

In order to deliver a reasonable crack at answering this after all very general question I need to invoke the headline of this note. In my opinion and as I will try to argue below Thailand is now at a crossroads. On the one hand Thailand finds itself right smack in the middle of the sweet spot relative to the ongoing demographic transition known as the demographic dividend. As we know this does not by any means constitute free lunches - of which, of course, there are very few, if any - but rather a golden opportunity for Thailand to move now in order to make sure that it does not go down the road of other rapidly ageing emerging economies of which China is perhaps the most important and best known example. However, if Thailand is to get rich before she actually gets old the window is closing fast.

By inspecting the graphs over at the Thailand Economy Watch we can readily see that Thailand with respect to its demographic position is now borderline between two extremes. The fertility rate has been stable at about 1.6 for the past 8 years and coupled with a rapid increase in life expectancy (which of course is a good thing) Thailand is now set to age rather rapidly. However, the effects of the ageing process are likely to be subdued in the interim as Thailand will enjoy something like 15 years of demographic headwind before reaching that ever so important 40 year median age threshold. Now, and although I realize that I have not yet fielded one single economic chart let me be very clear. A great deal of Thailand's economic future rests upon whether the economic growth which is now set to come and continue all things equal will bring Thailand a further notch into the demographic transition bringing TFR below the 1.5 mark. I really hope not and if there ever was an important objective for policy makers in Thailand it would be to make sure that what comes next is accompanied by an effort to keep the fertility rate from falling further, and preferrably, to find ways to nudge it back up to a slightly higher level. This would then bring me back to the present, which is what indeed is set to happen next in the context of the global and thus the Thailand economy?

Let us begin with a kind of overview of the Thailand economy such as it. As we can see from the two graphs fielded below, Thailand's prosperity has done been on the rise over the past 15-20 years, - a much more modest rise following 1998, but a rise nonetheless - and there is really no reason to believe that this will not continue to be the case in the immediate future. The Asian Crisis as it occured in the 1997-1998 is certainly not absent from the charts and you could even, if you are into such matters, debate whether in fact Thailand suffered an irreversible blow to its growth trend back in 1997? For more on this topic go here.

As for the short term economic data on Thailand, the most recent central bank inflation report (PDF) provides us with ample ammunition to get a more solid grip on the immediate outlook. If we scrutinize the data a bit more closely we see that growth in Thailand seems to have moderated somewhat when it comes to the evolution of headline GDP. This slowdown which must be considered in relative terms has coincided with a subtle but important change with respect to the engine of headline GDP growth. As can readily be seen from the chart the central bank provide (reproduced below) as private consumption and fixed capital formation have waned net exports of goods and services have slowly but surely been taking over as the main engine of economic growth in Thailand.

This is of course an important trend to take into account since it does mean that Thailand is subject to the whims of global markets to a higher degree than had been the case if private consumption had been doing the heavy lifting. Clearly, at this point we should remember that the time-span in question (i.e. Q2 2006 to Q3 2007) is exactly the period where domestic political uncertainty took a hefty leap upwards. So, it is really difficult to discern a notable trend in all this. However if we look at the central bank's private consumption index we can see after a slowdown at the end of 2006 (which would be associated with the political uncertainty) things do now seem to be turning back up again, so we may well be in a recovery phase.

Another notable feature of the recent trends in the Thai economy is the rather subdued rate of inflation which has come down over the course of 2006 and now into 2007/2008 as well. This seems somewhat odd when you look at the figures on the labour market where it quickly becomes clear that Thailand is firing on all cylinders at the moment with a monthly registred unemployment rate below 2% and somthing like 35 million people in work out of 64 million inhabitants. Indeed between the summer of 2005 the summer of 2007, Thailand added the best part of a million new jobs. This is really what the demographic dividend is all about, enabling rapid employment growth without provoking inflation. The demographic dividend isn't a policy, but it does produce an environment which is more favourable to the application of good policy.

This could indicate then that if consumer spending and confidence continue to enjoy a rebound, and if the political situation has reached some sort of resolution then the inflation gauge might start to tick upwards as we venture into 2008, especially in the light of the general global tendencies in base commodity and food prices. Finally, we have as I have already hinted above the trade surplus which since Q3 2005 has averaged around 15% of GDP offers Thailand a firm buffer for solid headline growth.

This then serves us to move further into the argument in this note and as such to the more specific point on capital flows which are central for the understanding of the current changes in the global economy and thus also Thailand.

Capital Flows and Thailand - To Receive or to Send?

Starting out with capital flows in the global economy I recently narrated the current economic climate as fairing in uncharted waters given the delicate situation in which we are now finding ourselves. This uncharted waters theme should not however be misinterpreted as lack of oversight which I feel we at GEM have plenty of. Rather, we are simply noting that what happens next will be an important test for many of our theses and arguments. In this way and homing in on what is especially important in the context of Thailand we have the mounting signs and evidence that the structures and chains of Bretton Woods II are slowly but surely being worn thin. These changes however do not seem supportive of those who have spent their time arguing for a process of de-coupling in the traditional sense whereby the US hands over the baton to a train being run by a joint tag-team consisting of Europe and Japan.

Moreso, what we are seeing is a historic process of re-coupling by which the engine locomotive of the global economy is changing from being driven exclusively by the US towards a more diverse crowd of leaders. How far this process will go on is yet to be seen. I for one don't envision for example that the US will revert entirely to growth path where a substantial external deficit is not part of the overall picture. But the main point is that the relative weight will change and perhaps more importantly that the changes we are now seeing are happening at a pace which is quite unprecented. Of course, as Brad Setser is set on hammering home a lot lately, the recent retreat of financing from the external US balance is largely due to an almost effective stoppage of private inflows which of course has the nasty side effect that the US is now ever more so dependant on official foreign government inflows in order to keep the boat floating. As for the general situation, the following wonderful quote from Setser quite eloquently sums up how we are now situated in somewhat of an interim position

Private investors want to finance deficits in countries that don’t want to run deficits. The countries now accumulating reserves the fastest have the least need for reserves. The country with the largest deficit is struggling to attract enough private inflows to match the increased desire of its private sector to buy foreign assets – let alone both the deficit and those outflows. And the country with the strongest traditional aversion to state-ownership is now the country most-reliant on government inflows.

As I mentioned above Brad Setser seems to be focusing quite a lot on the apparent disconnect between private and government/official flows with respect to the financing of the US CA deficit. This rather specific topic should be the center of another note and here we should rather move on to the obvious question. Given that changes are taking place of almost tectonic proportions in the structure of global capital flows what will this mean for Thailand? To deliver a reasonable attempt to answer that question I will need to field some grahps of which some, I am afraid, will be plotting some rather technical stuff. But I will explain as I go along. Let us first inspect the basic graphs plotting the CA balance and financial account as it has evolved on a quarterly basis since 1995. Note that these two are inversely correlated as the former measures the headline balance between flows of funds, goods, and services whereas the latter plots the net change in foreign ownership of domestic financial assets. This basically means that if the financial account is in surplus foreigners are buying domestic financial assets more quickly than domestic agents are buying foreign assets and vice versa of course if we are talking about 'selling.'

Once again, we can easily see when the Asian Crisis occured in the beginning of 1997. Other things to note is the fact that volatility seems to have returned to the overall CA balance in the recent years which is something I will talk a bit further about below. Secondly, and following from this point we see that foreign investors seems to have once more become rather fond of putting their funds in Thailand over the last couple of years as compared with the relative stagnation in the years following the currency crisis. This is can be further substantiated by a chart showing the flows of net portfolio investments.

As can be seen particularly well on this graph volatility has indeed returned with a venegance since 2004 and as I hinted this is bound to bring forth that 'once bitten twice shy' mantle. However, and as a testament to the new situation in the global economy the Thailand response to all this was essentially turned upside down when it came the 18th of December 2006. As Edward wrote just as the news was coming in off the wire, the measures to control capital were not designed to stem a potential rapid fall in the value of the Bhat as was the case in 1997. Quite the contrary;

So now we have capital controls, not to stem an outflow of foreign exchange, but to stop an outflow of domestic currency. Oh how the world has changed. Of course, it should escape no-one's notice that with fertility now well below replacement (somewhere in the 1.6 tfr range) Thailand is now right in the middle of that Demographic Dividend/Demographic Transition process I keep talking about.

Indeed, the world seems to have changed and Thailand now must decide how to position itself in this new situation. And this my dear reader brings me back to where I started and how Thailand now seems to be set a crossroads and while it may not be a question of losing your horse or your head, it does seem as if whatever road Thailand chooses it is a choice of some importance. In this way, Thailand seems to be faced with, at least, two interconnected choices moving forward from here. The first issue as I have hinted above is whether Thailand will be able to get the demographic house in order or not. There are of course many unknowns here either way but one thing seems fairly certain at this point. With life expectancy shooting upwards and fertility lingering at a TFR of 1.6 the next 12-15 years of economic development will be very important. If evidence from other countries is something to go by Thailand faces the imminent risk of tumbling down into the sub 1.5 TFR region which essentially constitutes something of a fertility trap. I strongly advise policy makers and others to strive so that this does not come to pass.

The second challenge which stands before Thailand relates to the whole changing structure of the international economic system and essentially the point that what we considered yesterday to be a distinction between developing and developed countries today is nothing but another anachronism ready for the big historical bin. In short, which strategy should Thailand deploy in an environment where liquidity is aflush and where the global search for yield is on? There is no straightforward question to this answer and in particular when we are talking about Thailand you cannot but expect that the old 'once bitten twice shy' dictum to be high on agenda. However, as I have also tried to argue above the times have changed immensely from 1997 and now Thailand is busy keeping money from pouring instead of pouring out. Consequently, it was only back in the beginning of December that we learned how authorities in Thailand were considering lifting capital control following today's elections (23rd of December). This then trickled down onto the jungle drums where echoes of double digit % Bhat appreciation were flying all over the place. Indeed, the Bhat has been on an upwards path as of late against the USD and now as the new government readies itself to take office we shall see what happens.

However, what would my view be on this then? Well, I certainly don't want to come off as being complacent towards allowing money to come in too quickly since when this happens there is always the risk that those very same funds may leave just as swiftly again. Nobody would know this better than those interested in Thailand's economy. However, perhaps we should also take heart of the fact, and as Edward so eloquently emphasised in the context of India recently, that the sands and seeds of time cannot be made to run backwards. At the end of the day you could then ask the most prominent question of whether in fact Thailand has a choice or not? Of course it does, Thailand like India, Brazil, and Turkey cannot just with a simple stroke of a magic wand absorb the procedes of a full scale of re-balancing/re-coupling of the global train. However, trying to stem the tide by building barriers is not likely to do any good either.

Conclusively, I want to finish off by adding that I see a whole lot of potential for Thailand's economy going forward. It is going to be a bumpy ride for sure and wills and wit will be tested but so it is with history and the future. Both of them are very much with us in the present. The last thing I would like to emphasise is the danger that Thailand follows the path of China not, of course, with the one-child policy per se but rather with respect to the path of growth where I clearly see an important link between the two; demographics and growth path that is. Export dependancy it seems, and not as per usual like all good things, will come to those who wait. Let that be a subtle reminder for Thailand as the country equips itself for a new year with new challenges.

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