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Tarrin's policies irritate Supachai

 

With interest rates still unbearably high, one of the prime minister's two most highly-respected economic wizards is bound to be the prime target for complaint. Thanong Khanthong and Achara Pongvuthitham discuss who it might be, and why.

 

The worsening liquidity crisis has opened up old wounds in the Democrat Party, bringing to the surface once again the differing opinions, if not long-standing rivalry, of its two economic czars -- Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi and Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda -- on how to manage macroeconomic policies.

Aides close to Supachai admit the two rarely speak although they may smile wryly when they encounter each other. Their differences over the course of salvaging the wrecked economy, and managing liquidity in particular, have widened to a point where a compromise will need the intervention of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai.

Supachai's aides and others in his circle say he admits the broad financial and economic reform pursued by Tarrin is moving in the right direction but that the finance minister could have done a better job in trying to bring down interest rates, which are going to threaten medium- and small-scale industries over the next two or three months.

As the nominal head of the Democrat's economic management team, Supachai was frustrated that he could not maintain a hands-on policy in relieving the plight of Thai exporters, who, because of the insolvency of the financial system, have been denied access to fresh loans or working capital to ship their goods to overseas markets. Supachai's performance lies in his ability to turn around the sluggish export situation. Thailand's terms of trade have been improved largely because of the plunge in imports, not a surge in exports.

Supachai believes Tarrin has paid too much attention to creditors in his tackling of the financial system crisis, without balancing the interests of the debtors or the manufacturers, who earn Thailand's bread and butter, his people said.

Moreover, Tarrin's haste to resolve the baht crisis only benefits the large debt-ridden corporates and banks, which are finding it cheaper to repay their US dollar-denominated loans, while the strong baht is no good for exporters, they said.

''The export sector is suffering from the stronger baht. A lot of them have pegged their costs at more than Bt40 to Bt45 against the dollar, and they are now losing money because the dollars they've earned from exports are now worth only Bt38-Bt39,'' said one of Supachai's advisers.

Tarrin's agenda is larger, encompassing the entire economic machinery of the country. It is no secret that Tarrin has been disturbed by Supachai's frequent comments over the liquidity crisis at a time when he is laying down the groundwork to rectify macroeconomic imbalances and insolvency in both the financial and corporate sectors.

''If there is no money, how can interest rates come down,'' Tarrin was quoted as saying. ''You just simply cannot talk down interest rates. Yes, you can bring the interest rate down, but tomorrow it will go up again. This will make the government's policy look stupid. If you bring down interest rates today, capital will immediately disappear from the system.''

The Tarrin camp also complained that Supachai, who chairs several committees, has been too busy to act on key issues -- in particular, Supachai's delay in revamping the Alien Business Law to make it more attractive for foreign investors to pour their money into Thailand, and privatisation.

Sitting in the middle is Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who has a sympathetic ear for the economic czars and is facing a dilemma over how to deal with the two. Their joint presence has bolstered the Democrat's popularity and image among both urban Thai voters and the international community. Chuan's successful trip to the United States could be attributed to Tarrin's masterminding, and Tarrin's ability to put the brakes on the runaway baht was a truly remarkable achievement.

But reports indicate that Chuan lately has tilted toward Supachai after hearing a lot of complaints from the private sector about high interest rates. More than a month ago, the prime minister asked the finance minister to resolve the liquidity problem, yet so far Tarrin has not delivered the policy in time to satisfy the prime minister and the impatient business community.

On Monday, in the absence of Tarrin, Supachai led the charge in the Council of Economic Ministers to vent his frustration against the Bank of Thailand's handling of the liquidity crisis. He really would like to get a hold on the state-run banks and order them to supplement the role of the weak commercial banks in lending money out to cash-strapped businesses. But the state banks are under the jurisdiction of the finance minister.

Some other Cabinet ministers were also disappointed with Tarrin's failure to tackle the liquidity problem as they see fit. Chuan also could not control his emotions after listening to the same old story from the central bank. He ordered Dr Siri Garnjaroendee, the bank's assistant governor, to return by next week with a comprehensive plan for relieving the liquidity problem.

But PM's Office Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva played down any conflict, saying that Monday's discussion was planned and it was Supachai's job to try to improve liquidity for exporters.

In Beijing last week, Dhanin Chearvanont, the chief of the Charoen Pokphand Group, warned that the honeymoon period between the Democrat-led government and the country will end within a month or two if the government fails to resolve the liquidity crisis and bring down interest rates. ''If they cannot resolve the liquidity problem, I will revise my position on whether I should continue to support them,'' he said.

Tarrin, too, realises that the honeymoon period is over, but he needs at least until the fourth quarter of this year before signs of a pickup in the economy can be detected. Waiting that long might just be too much for an impatient country and a frustrated Supachai. Some old wounds never heal.

 

 

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