Sixteen years after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Thailand shows every sign of having recovered, but the country may not be out of the woods yet and its economy may be vulnerable to another shock.
The crisis of 1997 started when the Thai baht collapsed after the government was forced to float the currency due to a shortage of foreign currency to support its fixed exchange rate. As the crisis spread, Thailand and other Asian countries experienced slumping currencies, devalued stock markets and other asset prices, and a precipitous rise in private debt.
Now, 16 years after that crisis and having experienced years of robust growth along with its Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand seems to be doing well.
Many are optimistic about the country’s financial future, believing the way forward is for Thailand to gain prosperity from expanding trade and exports, from rising disposable income, and from the relative strength of the country’s competitiveness as one of the financial hubs of the region, according to The Nation, a Thai newspaper.
Thai Minister of Finance Kittiratt Na-Ranong has even predicted that Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) could reach Bt100 trillion ($3.23 trillion) in the next seven years or so, from its current level of Bt13 trillion, as the government completes its mega-infrastructure investment.
But a closer look at the country’s economic structure reveals several weaknesses that indicate it may be vulnerable to another economic shock.
The recent move by the Fed to stop quantitative easing has prompted concerns over these fast-growing Southeast Asian economies, Thailand among them, and whether they can stay robust as foreign money pulls out.
Currently, foreign interests hold about 35 percent to 38 percent of Thai equities, the size of which is equal to the country’s GDP, said Jarumporn Chotikasthira, president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand.
This makes the equity market particularly vulnerable to a sudden outflow in the event that foreign investors sell off their holdings, according to The Nation.
Foreign investors are also major shareholders in the banking system, holding roughly 60 percent, and hold Bt900 billion in the Thai bond market. Both pose significant risks for the Thai financial markets, if foreign investors suddenly pull out.
In terms of real estate, foreigners own about one-third of the land in Thailand, according to The Nation.
In addition, over the past three or four months, Thailand once again lost a chunk of its foreign exchange reserves. According to the Bank of Thailand’s website, the Thai central bank’s forex reserves decreased by $10 billion from February, down to $172.6 billion as of June 21.
As a result, the baht exchange rate has gone through fluctuations during the same period. The baht stood at Bt28.55 against the U.S. dollar in April, before weakening to Bt31.05. Fluctuation over a period of three months reflects enormous risks associated with the forex market, according to The Nation.
Also in the first five months of the year, Thailand experienced pressure from a deteriorating external account, as domestic demand rose. Overall, the country posted a current account deficit of more than $3 billion. Money is flowing out of the country.
Thailand’s household debt has also risen dramatically, said Dr. Prasam Trairatvorakul, the governor of the Bank of Thailand, amounting to Bt8.8 trillion, or 78 percent of GDP.
With all of these risky factors at play, and as global economy continues to slow, Thailand will need to be cautious to prevent further shocks. The government’s plan of major infrastructure investment and heavy-handed deficit spending will also threaten to raise the public debt, now just under 50 percent of its GDP, but will rise to 70 percent if left unchecked, according to The Nation.