Three Thai tycoons are warning of a nascent economic bubble, blaming policies that have encouraged consumers to take on debt while the government borrows hugely to spur the economy
July 5, 2013 3 Comments
Tycoons of disaster urge caution; State policies creating a bubble, they warn
Published: 4 Jul 2013 at 23.52
From left, Sawasdi Horrungruang, Boonchai Bencharongkul and Prachai Leophairatana. The three business tycoons discussed how they survived the 1997 crisis. (Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)
Three businessmen who lost most of their empires during the tom yum kung crisis are warning of a nascent economic bubble, blaming policies that have encouraged consumers to take on debt while the government borrows hugely to spur the economy. Boonchai Bencharongkul, a founder of No.2 mobile operator Total Access Communication (DTAC), voiced concern about a potential new crisis forming. “I think the current situation is worrisome. As one of those who had such an experience, I can smell it now. People are rushing and competing to buy condos while more and more people are driving Ferraris. These are the same things we saw before the 1997 crisis occurred,” Mr Boonchai told a forum hosted by Thansettakij newspaper Thursday. He said populist policies such as the first-time car buyer tax rebate have prodded people to borrow from banks as part of the government’s attempt to boost gross domestic product (GDP). “Don’t focus so much on GDP. In the end, people really care about how much money they have left in their pockets,” he said.Sixteen years ago on July 2, the baht was floated after having been fixed at about 25 to the US dollar. It eventually plunged to 56 baht, dealing a lethal blow to firms borrowing in dollars, as was the trend at the time.
As Thai companies fell, multinationals descended in droves to buy bad debt, causing resentment in many quarters.
DTAC was the first company to enter a debt restructuring process with its 50 creditors, supervised by the Bank of Thailand.
Although Mr Boonchai remains one of Thailand’s wealthiest tycoons, his empire was taken over by the Norwegian telecommunications giant Telenor.
He said he spent the next eight years licking his wounds and another eight redefining his strategy.
“Don’t over-invest, and if possible, do not borrow to expand the business,” said Mr Boonchai, adding that the government itself should not overspend.
“This time, the nature of the crisis might be different. Last time it was the private sector that went bankrupt, but this time we might see the government collapse.”
Sawasdi Horrungruang, a former tycoon who founded the NTS Steel Group, said the government should not borrow beyond its capacity to service the debt, which will eventually become the burden of taxpayers.
Mr Sawasdi found himself saddled with debt exceeding US$2 billion by the time the 1997 crisis was over.
NTS was merged with the Siam Cement Group’s steel unit and was later sold to India’s Tata Steel.
Another steel firm of Mr Sawasdi’s empire, Nakornthai Strip Mill, was merged with Somsak Leeswadtrakul’s G Steel Plc.
Mr Sawasdi also urged caution regarding the Thai government’s plan to help develop a deep-sea port and other infrastructure in Dawei, Myanmar, at a cost of several hundred billion baht.
Prachai Leophairatana, a founder of Thai Petrochemical Industry (TPI), blamed the government’s failure to protect Thai businesses during the 1997 crisis for destroying entrepreneurship in the country.
With debts approaching 100 billion baht, he was forced to sell most of his business empire to survive the crisis, leaving only TPI Polene (TPIPL), a unit accounting for just 10% of the group’s original asset value.
After filing for bankruptcy, TPI’s petrochemical business was taken over by the state oil company PTT.
“[The 1997 crisis] was the government’s failure. And the government should have protected investors … I’m still sad that the government did not help [Thai companies] but just made things worse,” Mr Prachai said bitterly.
He has bounced back somewhat from the crisis. His SET-listed TPIPL, Thailand’s third-biggest cement maker, plans a new investment of 10 billion baht, half of it to expand cement production capacity.
The project, which will increase TPIPL’s capacity to 12 million tonnes by 2026, had been suspended since the crisis but is resuming now.