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Regional crisis helps stress need for corporate governance

 

PARIS -- Paul E Atkinson, chief of the Division of Economic Perspectives, OECD's Department of Economic Affairs, says apart from excessive optimism, weaknesses in corporate governance and the lack of transparency have also amplified the Asian crisis. Corporate governance is in vogue whenever performance problems arise, both at the national and company levels.

As seen from Europe, corporate governance in developing countries still has a long way to go before reaching international standards. After the outbreak of the Asian crisis, corporate governance has become indispensable, separating good and bad companies and facilitating a corporation's ability to raise capital or become a competitive player in the global markets.

The OECD recently published a set of guidelines on corporate governance, a product prepared by its business sector advisory group.

The OECD economies now rely more than ever on the corporations as the engine to raise capital, create jobs, earn profits and divide the value added for its success. Strengthening the corporations and increasing their competitiveness is thus the primary objective.

''Corporations must be able to develop and implement their respective competitive advantages, to raise capital, to assemble and redeploy resources to that end and, at the same time, to meet the expectations of their shareholders, employees, suppliers, creditors, customers, communities and society at large,'' The OECD report says. ''Corporate governance comprehends that structure of relationships and corresponding responsibilities among a core group consisting of shareholders, board members and managers designed to best foster the competitive performance required to achieve the corporations' primary objective.''

Not until early this year has the movements of governance gained some visible momentum in Thailand. But it is the bureaucratic and political governance that appears to attract broader public interest. Corporate governance has not reached a broader base, although it is also one of the underlying structural problems that have contributed to the present deterioration of the Thai economy and the lower standard of living.

Thirayudh Boonmee, the social critic and academic from Thammasat University, has tried to ignite a movement to propagate the cause of bureaucratic and political governance. His ambition is to shake up the institutional foundations and lead to genuine political and social reform.

But Thirayudh needed a leader of charisma like Anand Panyarachun, the former prime minister, to drive home his message. Anand, in fact, was the first to use the words ''transparency'' and ''governance'' during his short tenure as prime minister in the early 1990s. When he was approached early this year by Thirayudh to join him in the thammarat, Anand showed initial hesitation. After his high profile role in the constitutional reform process, Anand did not want another high-profile task. But he did not mind if Thirayudh was to use some of his old material on which he made his numerous speeches.

By the way, no one could claim a monopoly on this flashy idea of governance, a Western word that does not have an equivalent literary translation in Thai. Later Anand did participate in some talkshows to promote governance. In his opinion, governance is nothing more than a transparent process, which is governed by a checks-and-balance system, which is accountable and by which the public can participate in the democratic principles.

But governance has not taken a firm root in Thailand and elsewhere in the region due to the absence of strong institutional reforms over the changing eras. Asian countries won't be able to compete against the West insofar as their institutions remain inherently weak.

The governments are there to oppress in order to serve the interests of the ruling classes or the politicians. Corporations are there to serve the interests of the families, the major shareholders or the management which happen to be the same group of people. Institutions, from the central banking system, the exchange watchdog, the judificial system, the accounting standards, to the enforcement of the rules and the laws, are still too weak to cope with the rampant cronyism, nepotism and corruption. No country can survive or prosper if their institutions are weak and tamed.

Urban C Lehner, executive editor of Dow Jones Asia, says it was not long after the crash in 1929 that the US began to form the Securities Exchange Commission, which would be playing an important role in laying down the institutional framework and standard for today's US corporations. In other words, he says, it takes pain and time for people to change for the better.

Without a governance framework, excess borrowings and corrupted and reckless loan practices have contributed to the present financial crisis. Last year a Euorpean banker expressed his big disappointment over goverance in the Thai system when General Finance & Securities Plc was shut down along with 15 other ailing finance companies in June 1997, although Suthee Peat & Marwick, the accounting firm, gave the company's 1996 accounting book a clean bill of health.

The Stock Exchange of Thailand is studying corporate governance in earnest, as is Thai Rating Information and Services Co Ltd, the rating agency, which under the leadership of Dr Vorapatr Tothanakasem wants to contribute to this new movement.

The drastic institutional reforms, initiated under the International Monetary Fund support programme, are indeed sweeping, however. The banking sector will never be the same. Regulations will be tougher; the standard of public disclosure will be higher.

If Thailand is declared a bankrupt nation and driven by external forces into a corner, it will be forced to change. Governance, either corporate or government, that will emerge from this painful process must be traded for the loss of autonomy.

BY THANONG KHANTHONG

 

 

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