25 December, 2006

Thailand’s “Black Tuesday” baht meltdown – Is it safe to invest here?

A street beautification program in Huaygeaw Road,Chiangmai, Thailand: a perfect metaphor for Thai-style planning, estimation and evaluation skills

The recent Bank of Thailand’s disastrous attempt to discourage offshore baht speculators by suddenly imposing a 30% non-interest bearing ‘reserve’ (effectively a tax) on capital inflows was, unfortunately, rather typical of Thai “knee-jerk” planning methods. As an apt metaphor, check out these haphazard plantings of trees and flowers along Chiangmai’s Huaygeaw Road near our condo in Chiangmai, Northern Thailand. They reveal something of the workings of the Thai mind:

In the council’s procrastination and haste to dress the city up for the Ratchaphreuk Flower Festival, decisions suddenly came thick and fast from what HAD to have been a number of distinct committees. These committees could surely not have communicated with each other, given the messy outcome.

First, jack-hammers smashed roughly metre-square planting-holes in the tiled footpaths; workers then laid a young tree, with root-ball tightly tied, next to each hole. The saplings stayed that way for about 10 days, during which time the large majority wilted and died under the cruel October sun. Many more pavement tiles cracked and broke loose, even though pedestrians did their best to steer around the carnage. All the trees were then hurriedly planted (dead or otherwise) 2 days before the Festival opened. Any lingering leaves soon browned and dropped, requiring a panicky street-sweep before the celebs arrived. Next, dozens of large pots, located ad hoc wherever there happened to be a convenient gap between tree-craters, were filled with potting-mix, planted with flowers and hastily watered.

Result? Dead trees (most of which have since fallen over or been removed). Anyway, that species of tree would have soon grown into the overhead power-lines. Then there was the oozing brown sludge from the bottom of the pots, making walking slippery and unsightly. Broken tile shards have been littering the street. Two months on, little more has been done, and the pavement resembles an obstacle-course worthy of a secret al-Quaeda training camp. This 'cock-up' process is so common that the persons responsible would not only have got off without a reprimand, but could have been promoted for inventing a successful job-creation scheme!

This young elephant near our apartment found the going a bit tough. They are brought to town to entertain tourists because bulldozers have taken over their traditional logging work. Note the stylish tail-light.

The recent Black Tuesday stock market crash was merely an extension of this same myopic mindset but magnified at the national level. It could have been avoided simply by slowly increasing interest rates to pre-figure its fiscal intent. The market would have listened and accommodated appropriately over time, as in any country.

This cultural difference has its roots in the straight-jacketed Thai education system which prefers rigid rote-learning of ‘facts’ in preference to the teaching of critical thinking, logic, analysis or debate. Why bother thinking? – just go in with jack-hammers and see what happens.
So. . .

Should you invest here? The economy is ok, the basics are in place, but do make provision for possible legislative wildcards by spreading your eggs into other baskets as well. As much as I love Thailand, it does have a track-record of doing un-signalled policy u-turns without much thought to probable consequences. Having said that, the Bank of Thailand (and the fledgeling Surayud government) have just learned a BIG and embarrassing lesson - and cottoned on fast.

Update: Jan 12 2007: Here's an honest article in the Opinion section of Thailand’s ‘The Nation’ newspaper.

PS: Thailand Immigration’s long-stay or business visa rules are also a 'whatever-goes' zone. I refer you to the ex-pat forum at Thaivisa.com.

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