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Successor required to steady rudderless ship

 

The road ahead for the new finance minister will be both torturous and treacherous, but as Thanong Khanthong and Vatchara Charoonsantikul report, that person will have no other path to follow.

Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has no more time left. He has to immediately appoint someone with a sound grasp of macro-economics as finance minister to restore confidence. The new minister will have to follow a strategic road map if determined enough to lead Thailand out of its present economic crisis.

But the road will no doubt prove treacherous and, at times, it will see the new minister swimming in a sea of sharks. That is the kind of adventure to be undertaken in an attempt to salvage the economy from going down the tubes.

So it comes as no surprise that Chavalit cannot find any first-class candidates from the directory of Thailand's top financial minds to handle the demanding job after Amnuay Viravan's departure. All have proved their sanity by turning down the finance portfolio and the chance to work arm-in-arm with the ''Jurassic Park" Cabinet.

At this time, when there is great danger of total economic collapse, the country cannot afford to have a second or third-rate finance minister.

''The prime minister must appoint someone immediately who will have credibility as a finance minister and then give him full authority to do the job so he can implement wholesale reform of the financial system," Nikhil Bhati Srinivasan, vice president of Morgan Stanley, said.

''He must try to bring down interest rates one way or another, even if it means currency adjustments."

''The international community is willing to work with Thailand provided that it has a clear and credible policy to move ahead," he said.

Amnuay's resignation sent the financial markets into a tailspin. Individuals and corporates are hoarding the dollar because they do not see anybody who they can trust or who they believe can defend the Thai currency. Yesterday, the interbank interest rate jumped to 14 to 17 per cent from Wednesday's 12.25 to 12.5 per cent.

Thai corporates scrambled to borrow the baht, even at exorbitant costs, to buy dollars to cover their position, making the greenback worth Bt26. Devaluation rumours broke loose again.

The inter-finance rate, at which finance companies lend money to each other, shot up to 20 per cent. Some finance companies are borrowing at 20 per cent, which means that they will have to lend out at 25 or 30 per cent to some fateful entrepreneurs who have to keep borrowing just to keep their businesses afloat.

This is a prescription for disaster that will explode in several sectors of the economy, although in the medium term the economy may have a chance of recovery.

The following is a map the finance minister may try to follow as a means to recovery.

He has to come up with a ''proper and definite" financial policy, as suggested by Chatri Sophonpanich, the boss of Bangkok Bank Plc.

The problem with the economy is that it is infected by an ailing financial system and a lack of continuity in financial policy due to frequent changes in government, he said.

Recently, Chatri advised one of his friends on how to keep money in a safe place. ''You'd better put your money in a bag. Dig a hole and bury it. And make sure you don't get twitchy hands," he said.

The most important element of this policy is a credible and sweeping package to deal with ailing financial institutions. The package must be decisive in forcing takeovers among all 91 finance companies, a third of which have already gone bust.

The finance minister must do away with half-hearted packages because it will only lead to half-hearted resolutions to solve the crisis in the finance sector, which has spilt over into the foreign exchange market.

The minister must be brave enough to detonate another time bomb, a regulation requiring all the financial institutions banks and finance companies alike to report for the first time the level of their non-performing loans at the end of this month.

Once these loans are announced, it will show the depth of the black hole into which the financial institutions have dug themselves into throughout years of over-optimism, imprudence and in several cases fraud.

The quicker all the bad news floats to the surface, the quicker the finance markets will recover confidence. It is not just finance companies that are in big trouble. Banks too are carrying a load of bad debts. The market has understood this problem very well by trouncing bank stocks.

Bangkok Bank closed at Bt102, Thai Farmers Bank at Bt73, Siam Commercial Bank at Bt79, Krung Thai Bank at Bt25. The heavyweights of the Thai stock market have all fallen from grace.

Failed financial institutions, the tumor of the financial system, must be allowed to go bust. This is the root of all evils. The biggest mistake so far by banking regulators has been to keep financial institutions, like Bangkok Bank of Commerce and Finance One Plc, from becoming insolvent.

Yet the regulators have virtually no idea how to deal with these two institutions except to continually pump money into them. The price tags are expensive: Bt176 billion for BBC; Bt40 billion for Fin-One. This practice of playing Santa Claus must stop immediately.

Once the market forces take care of the failed financial institutions, the remaining solvent institutions will become stronger. With solvent institutions, public confidence will return to the Thai financial institutions. This will pave the way for liquidity to come back.

The system must live on privately-generated liquidity, not on liquidity from the Bank of Thailand. If this happens, the finance minister will have more breathing space.

The return of liquidity will give a cushion to the central bank to cut interest rates, necessary to put the economy back on track. The finance minister must do everything to bring down interest rates, even using currency adjustments.

Right now the weakened economy, coupled with tight liquidity, is eating Thai corporates alive. Unemployment will reach more than one million this year.

''Even good companies have been denied liquidity to keep their business going. For this reason, I don't believe that exports will meet the target of seven per cent," a local banker working for a medium-scale bank said.

A banker working for a foreign bank in Bangkok bitterly complained yesterday at the government's lack of directional sense and their business-as-usual attitude when dealing with problems.

''Some 20 to 30 of my Japanese customers in the auto industry here are biting the bullet, yet they do not complain. Six of them are borrowing about Bt100 billion. Every one percentage point of interest rate costs them Bt1 billion a year. If the government cannot give businesses confidence, what will happen to these companies if all the other Japanese banks decide to stop lending," he said.

The new finance minister may not want to hear the sufferings from businesses because they are too widespread, but he cannot afford to overlook the macro picture. Once liquidity in the system improves, he must move on to end the two-tier baht system introduced last month as a fortress against the speculative attacks against the currency.

The two-tier, onshore-offshore baht system has harmed the image of Thailand as an open economy and discourages foreign investors from bringing money into this capital-hungry country.

The central bank should be advised to square off on its position built up in mid-May to fend off the speculative attacks and bring down the two-tier system and end the sharp currency volatility. It can elect to close down the foreign exchange swap market any time when speculative attacks return.

 

 

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