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Citibank winner in economic turmoil

 

The United States has just risen to a wake-up call that it needs to do something more, even symbolically, to aid Thailand, which is one of its foremost allies in this region. Ironically, the change of heart comes only after a mounting threat of anti-American sentiment.

A host of theories is being aired over why the US is slow, intentionally or unintentionally, to react to the Thai financial turmoil. A bail-out package for either Indonesia or South Korea has received the US's stamp of approval in a grandiose way. In the case of Thailand, the US reacted initially with indifference, brushing it aside as a minor tremor at the farthest side of the globe. The US nonetheless played an active behind-the-scenes role in putting together a US$17.2 billion rescue package for Thailand.

Yet the rescue package also came with a string of attachments that will ultimately tear down the Thai barrier that for decades stood in the way of the expansion of US financial institutions.

Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall represents a political and ideological victory for the US over socialism, the collapse of the economies in Asia marks another more subtle triumph of US financial imperialism over the rest of this region. This predominance is already foreshadowed by the successful conclusion of the financial services agreement under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation.

Some local analysts have begun to suspect that the US intentionally played hard-ball politics with Thailand amid the baht crisis because it was Thailand's turn to pay back. US resentment was deep in particular due to the unsuccessful attempt of Citibank NA over the years to break into the Thai banking sector.

Southeast Asia, of which Thailand is a part, became a target of US penetration into its financial services industry immediately after the successful conclusion of the Uruguay Round of global trade liberalisation that gave rise to the WTO. After trade, the new era is the money game, as far as the US is concerned. In financial services, the US is the world's mightiest.

As a global consumer-service bank, analysts said, Citibank is always keen to expand its presence in Thailand. Yet its attempt to get into the Thai market had been blocked all the way by Thai banking regulators, who preferred to keep the domestic family banks as fat cats.

Thai banks had been licenced to make money by enjoying a spread of 4-5 per cent. This spread was obtained simply by paying low deposit rates and charging high lending rates in an environment of official protection.

Only through a back-door takeover of the Mercantile Bank in the 1980s was it possible for Citibank to set up a one-branch operation in Bangkok. From its business strategy, Citibank would like to open more outlets to augment its strength in retail banking. But banking regulators adopted a cardinal rule barring Citibank and other foreign banks from setting up additional branches.

Only after the coming of age of the global trade liberalisation talks under the WTO did Thailand agree to relax its foreign entry rules. The opening was to be gradual, if not systematic. First, offshore banking licences under the Bangkok International Banking Facility would be handed out. Five of these BIBF banks, selected from geographical spread, would be upgraded to full branch operations.

Since the US was already represented by Citibank, Bank of America and Chase Manhattan Bank, no new foreign branch licence was given to any US financial institution. But the US had made it clear that even with the existence of a multilateral framework under the WTO, it would still actively rely on bilateral talks to achieve a broader financial services market in Thailand and the rest of Asia.

Even with a one-branch operation, Citibank was so efficient, particularly in treasury and consumer banking, that its profits dwarfed the medium-scale Thai banks backed by hundreds of branches. Some years ago, Chatri Sophonpanich, the big boss of Bangkok Bank, expressed his alarm over Citibank's attempt to expand its presence in the Thai market. ''All Thai banks will be swept over if we allow Citibank or other foreign banks to expand,'' he was quoted as saying.

Unperturbed, US officials had been pressing Thailand openly and privately for Citibank to open additional branches. AIA, the US insurance group, had also been a subject of contentious negotiations because AIA, which dominates the life insurance market, had been barred from expanding its retail network and had to rely on different tactics to circumvent the regulation.

Citibank had asked that it be allowed, as the first step, to participate in the on-line ATM network with local banks or to set up its own ATM machines outside its branch to service its clients. This request was denied on the technical grounds that granting Citibank permission to establish ATM machine operations would amount to giving the US bank the licence to open one more branch.

''Much to the US's frustration, the case of Citibank would serve as an excuse to return Thailand in kind when the time comes,'' said one local analyst.

When it was clear that Thailand would not be able to dig itself out of the financial turmoil, it turned to the IMF and Japan for help. There was a big gap in the relations between Thailand and the US. Shortly after the formulation of the IMF rescue package for Thailand, a US diplomat said the US did not commit any financial aid to Thailand because Thailand did not ask for it. Besides, any foreign aid of this scale would have to seek congressional approval, a logjam process the White House would like to avoid after President Bill Clinton took an unprecedented step to bail out Mexico, he said.

The US$30 billion in stand-by credit he authorised for Mexico had caused a backlash from the Republican-controlled Congress. But the US diplomat said the US did actively help Thailand through the IMF, in which it has the biggest clout.

There was a feeling among several quarters within Thailand that the US was not Thailand's true friend in time of need because not a single dollar was handed out to Thailand. It was indeed Japan, which had a more sympathetic ear to Thailand's plight. This sentiment against the US has been rising ever since.

Analysts said the US realised that it should not rush in to aide Thailand because a collapse of the capital market and the financial system would force Thailand into a corner and open its system up for foreign capital. With the contagion effect, the region's financial services have been broken loose.

With a mixture of US and IMF pressure and a helpless situation, Thailand has been forced to allow foreigners to hold 100 per cent in Thai financial institutions for up to 10 years -- effectively liberalising the banking sector to the full extreme.

Citibank is now negotiating to buy a majority stake in First Bangkok City Bank. Once the negotiations are complete, Citibank will be operating with more than 100 branches already established by FBCB -- a far cry from its wish only a year ago to set up an ATM machine outside its office. More US financial powerhouses will be knocking at the Thai doors.

BY THANONG KHANTHONG

 

 

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