BANGKOK (Reuters) - With a central banking background and astrology as a hobby, Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala could come in handy as finance minister for a new Thai government trying to satisfy demands at home while steering through more upheaval in the global economy.
A 59-year-old former deputy governor at the central bank, Thirachai is a non-party outsider brought in by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to give her government credibility in the markets and reassure investors worried about Thai politics.
Thirachai has a passion for Thai astrology and refers to himself as a “serious amateur,” having co-authored a book called “Know Your Future.”
According to his website, he got it right in predicting David Cameron would become Prime Minister of Britain but was off the mark when he said the late Osama bin Laden would launch an attack in 2014.
For investors, what matters more is his 26 years at the Bank of Thailand and eight years in charge of Thailand’s market watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
“They were looking for an outsider and he’s one of the top guys available, with knowledge of both the capital markets and banking sector,” said Kongkiat Opaswongkarn, CEO of Thai brokerage Asia Plus Securities.
“But the pressure will be imminent, especially with the current global problems. The most important task is to implement the policies, change rules and regulations and the corporate tax and ensure a close relationship with the central bank and the private sector.”
Thirachai’s appointment was signaled last week when he stepped down as secretary-general of the SEC. Last year he was rumored to be in contention for the governor’s job at the central bank, before Prasarn Trairatvorakul was appointed.
A bespectacled man with a friendly face and a fondness for flower-patterned ties, Thirachai studied at the London School of Economics in the 1970s, then joined Price Waterhouse in London, where he qualified as an accountant before heading home.
He joined the central bank in 1977 and played a prominent role in the supervision of financial institutions, monetary policy and financial markets, becoming deputy governor in 2002. He moved to the SEC the following year.
He was at the Bank of Thailand during the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, which started with a collapse in the Thai baht, and was SEC secretary-general at the time of the $1.9 billion, tax-free sale of telecoms firm Shin Corporation by the family of Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of Yingluck.
The anger caused by that sale played a part in the events that led to the ousting of Thaksin as prime minister by the military in 2006.
Since winning the July 3 election, Yingluck has been vague on economic policy and will pass to Thirachai the responsibility of explaining how a slew of populist promises that won her more than 15 million votes will be implemented without hurting the economy and bankrupting businesses.
He takes over at a time of global economic uncertainty and with domestic inflation at its highest in 32 months.
There are, however, great expectations among the poor who voted for Yingluck and her Puea Thai Party and want to see the huge increase in the minimum wage she promised. Economists say that could set off a wage-price spiral.
To help business, Puea Thai has proposed a cut in corporate taxes.
Thirachai replaces Korn Chatikavanij, the Oxford-educated former chairman of JP Morgan, whose Democrat Party was thumped in the election.
Korn will be watching Thirachai from the opposition benches.
He launched an opening salvo Saturday on his Facebook page, accusing Thirachai, as head of the SEC, of failing to follow up allegations of perjury against Yingluck in an asset concealment case that led to the confiscation of $1.4 billion of the Shinawatra family wealth in 2010.
Editing by Alan Raybould and Ron Popeski