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Ally Japan comes to the rescue of Thailand, yet again


Vatchara Charoonsantikul and Thanong Khanthong say the Miyazawa Plan will save Thailand for a second time.

DR THANONG Bidaya, the former finance minister, declared his Tokyo trip in August 1997 a ''big success'' after his Japanese hosts agreed to put together a US$17.2-billion IMF programme for Thailand. Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda, the present finance minister, did not exhibit a similar enthusiasm upon returning to Bangkok on Tuesday after discussing the $30-billion Miyazawa Plan with Kiichi Miyazawa, his Japanese counterpart.

Nonetheless, both trips were of historic importance, representing defining moments in Thai-Japanese relationship. As the Elton John song goes, ''That's What Friends Are For!''

The International Monetary Fund programme was assembled in the midst of the Thai crisis when it was known to the world that Thailand was a technically bankrupt country due to the loss of all its foreign exchange reserves to the brutal defence of the baht. The US stood by and watched, while Japan went all the way to help Thailand.

As of August 1997, Thailand's foreign exchange reserves stood at a net $800 million after taking into account the obligations of the currency forward contracts. The US demanded that Thailand immediately disclose its forward contracts to the world even before the IMF package was announced, but Japan interrupted by saying that Thailand should be allowed to do so after the IMF package was formally sealed.

The IMF package, accompanied by a host of reform measures as well as a tightening of the fiscal and monetary policy, was aimed at relieving Thailand's cashflow problems due to the balance of payments crisis. After Eisuke Sakakibara, the vice Japanese finance minister, had learned that Thailand had $23.4 billion in forward contracts committed for baht defence -- $14.8 billion of which represented offshore forward contracts -- he exclaimed that Thailand, which had more than $90 billion in foreign debts, was bankrupt. This was echoed by other investors when they were fully informed about Thailand's cashflow positions.

Then the baht suffered from a big run until it hit Bt56 to the US dollar in mid-January 1998. Today it is a miracle to see the baht stabilising at Bt37-Bt38 to the US dollar. Without the IMF package, for all the criticism against its harsh measures, the baht will definitely not have seen the light of day.

After more than a year of financial turmoil and five letters of intent with the IMF, Thailand has disbursed more than $10 billion from the IMF bail-out package. All of this money has gone directly to repay its external debts. The foreign creditors have been kept happy. Thailand has gone through all the pains and there are no bitter medicines left to take.

In the meantime, it has succeeded in changing its status literally almost overnight from a current account deficit country to a current account surplus country. Earlier, Thailand needed $1 billion a month in foreign money to finance its current account deficit. Now, with the collapse in imports, it is experiencing a surplus in the current account by $1 billion a month.

Against this, surplus has been leaving the country quickly to service the external debts.

The Bank of Thailand has come out to assert that the non-performing loans in the banking system will reach Bt2 trillion, or 40 per cent, of total loans this year. This means that most of the old money is stuck in bad, mostly irrecoverable assets.

Yet if Thailand is to stage a recovery and continue to see a stable baht, it will need at least $10-$15 billion in foreign money to improve domestic liquidity. Since private capital is unlikely to return to Thailand in any significant amount in the foreseeable future, official money is what Thailand needs.

Here comes Act II of Japan's bail-out for Thailand and the region. In Act I, Japan was trying to keep Thailand's solvency alive. Helping Thailand would also help the massive Japanese investment in this country. In Act II, it will assist Thailand in the reconstruction phase.

Tarrin kept his lips sealed when asked about the money Thailand expects to get from the Miyazawa Plan. His aide only said: ''The amount will be considerable.'' Tarrin has been keeping a very close relationship with the Japanese authorities, informing them of every reform step Thailand has been taking since assuming his finance portfolio.

In public and private, he says, Japan has been very supportive of Thailand, listening carefully to Thailand's needs. The money from the Miyazawa Plan, which may be augmented, will extend the oxygen tube for Thailand until it can recover on its own. With the continuing turbulence in the global markets well into next year, Japan has come up with a package that for the second time will save Thailand.



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