As Bangkok 'shutdown' looms, Thailand's 'Teflon' economy put to the test
BANGKOK (Reuters) - It has been nicknamed "Teflon Thailand" - an economy seemingly impervious to any lasting effects from regular spasms of violent political unrest.
But with protesters vowing to "shut down" Bangkok on January 13 in their two-month-old bid to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the nickname seems more like a taunt.
For while Southeast Asia's second-largest economy has proven surprisingly resilient to past unrest, analysts see signs of deeper damage this time that could pose longer-term problems for a country already grappling with slowing growth and outflows of global capital from its fragile financial markets.
Tourism is taking a hit, infrastructure spending is delayed and investors and consumers are uneasy over a political crisis that promises more violence but no real solution.
The stock market is the worst performer in Southeast Asia and the currency has been falling since October.
"It's clear the economy is slowing down and you cannot rely on fiscal policy any more because we don't really have a government right now," said Kampon Adireksombat, senior economist at TISCO Securities in Bangkok.
The turmoil sent Thai consumer confidence to a two-year low in December, a ninth straight month of decline, a survey showed on Thursday, and the trend is likely to continue. Consumer spending propped up the economy when exports were weak in 2012 and 2013.
The government's planned infrastructure investments will be postponed until the next budget year, which begins in October, Finance Minister Kittirat Na Ranong said on January 3. But with a new administration unlikely to be put in place soon, the plans could be delayed further.
"It is very clear the infrastructure project is unlikely to be implemented this year," said Kampon at TISCO.
Political turbulence is not always a drag on Thailand's economy, which has weathered eight years of on-off turmoil that has seen governments toppled, protesters shot, buildings and buses set ablaze, and airports and shopping malls seized by demonstrators.
Each time, Thailand's financial markets typically swoon and rebound. The bloodiest political violence in a generation erupted in April and May 2010, but foreign inflows nearly doubled that year; stocks rocketed 40.6 percent and the economy bounded ahead by 7.8 percent, its best growth in 15 years.
Tourists returned to Thai beaches in near-record numbers, up 12 percent that year.
But the current crisis is dragging on longer, entering a third month, with no end in sight. As each week passes amid speculation of a possible military coup, economists and policymakers are chopping more off their growth forecasts for Thailand's $360 billion economy.
On December 26, the Finance Ministry slashed its 2014 growth forecast to 4 percent from 5.1 percent but said it could slip even lower, possibly to 3.5 percent, if the unrest continued.
Credit Suisse expects even lower growth, of 3 percent.
A general election is scheduled for February 2, but with an opposition boycott and hundreds of ruling party lawmakers now under investigation for corruption, it is looking increasingly unviable. The Election Commission said the vote will take place, although fears remain it could be derailed by street violence or yet another military coup.
Until an election is held, Thailand will be run by Yingluck's caretaker government, which will have neither the power nor the inclination to implement growth-boosting policies, say economists.
If a government is elected, it will likely prioritize political survival over fiscal policy. The worst-case scenario, says Sutapa Amornvivat, chief economist at Siam Commercial Bank's Economic Intelligence Center, is a non-functioning government in which "public investment practically shuts down".
Failure to hold an election will also hurt the fiscal 2015 budget allocation, warned Manas Jamveha, director-general of the Comptroller General's Department. He said he expected a four-month delay in planning the 2015 budget if elections are missed.
"SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT"
Since 2006, when Yingluck's brother Thaksin was toppled as prime minister by a military coup, Thailand has experienced popular uprisings and bloody crackdowns.
But this time could be - to borrow a phrase from a T-shirt sold to tourists - "same same but different".
Unlike in 2010, the economy is much more reliant on tourism and infrastructure spending, both of which are taking a hit.
Tourism revenues account for 10 percent of GDP, so any impact on the sector "should be significant to economic growth," said Pimonwan Mahujchariyawong, an economist at Kasikorn Research Center.
Thailand is now in its peak tourist season, unlike during the 2010 unrest. In December, tourist arrivals increased by only 6.7 percent over a year earlier, an alarming figure for an industry accustomed to years of double-digit growth. Arrivals jumped more than 30 percent in December 2012.
Airlines have cancelled scores of flights to Bangkok and some hotels are half-empty. Usually occupancy rates during the peak tourist season are more like 80-90 percent, said Piyaman Tejapaibul, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand.
"People are afraid to have meetings or seminars here. There have been a lot of cancellations or postponements," said Ronnachit Mahattanapreut, senior vice-president of the Central Plaza Hotel Pcl.
The hotel group's occupancy rates have dropped to 40-50 percent since December, compared with 60-70 percent a year earlier. "The main factor is the unrest," said Ronnachit.
Nor is the weak baht - down about 6 percent against the dollar since the start of November - helping Thai exporters much, said SCB's Sutapa.
"A lot of private firms are on wait-and-see mode, including exporters who were expecting (business) to pick up with the global recovery," said Sutapa.
Periodic political violence has become "the new normal" for Thailand, but talk of the economy's resilience obscures a greater malaise, said SCB's Sutapa.
Unrest does not seem to dent the economy, she says, until you factor in almost a decade of lost opportunities.
"All this time private investment is much lower as a share of GDP compared to our neighboring countries," she said. "If you look at that, you can definitely see that without political unrest, possibly our economy would be growing much faster."