June 23, 2017 7:36 pm JST

Thai junta beseeches foreign investors: 'Please come now'

Prime minister and cabinet all-stars make a rare public appeal as FDI plunges

YUKAKO ONO, Nikkei staff writer

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha called on foreign fund managers to invest in his country at the June 22 gathering.

BANGKOK -- Thai Prime Minister and junta boss Prayuth Chan-ocha gathered his economic team for a rare all-star appearance in front of foreign investors on Thursday in a desperate appeal to get money flowing back into the country again.

"Please come now, don't wait -- the sooner is the better," Prayuth told a Stock Exchange of Thailand conference titled "Thailand's Big Strategic Move." He vowed that his military regime would put Thailand on track "to become a first-world, developed nation" by kicking off large infrastructure projects before the long-delayed general election, now slated for late 2018.

"I am ready to hand over all tasks to the new government so they can carry on after the election," he said, referring to his team's recently implemented 20-year national strategy plan through 2036, to which the future civilian government is legally bound to promote.

Infrastructure push

The prime minister's roughly 20-minute speech was followed by lengthy remarks by his cabinet members in charge of economic affairs, namely Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana and Finance Minister Apisak Tantivorawong.

"We wanted to provide firsthand information with our own words without being politically biased by the media," Somkid said. He stressed that efforts were being made to upgrade infrastructure, saying projects ranging from highways to a high-speed railway worth a combined 2.4 trillion baht ($70.6 billion) were in the pipeline.

Somkid said that construction of a controversial and long-delayed 252km high-speed train project with China is set to start by September, and reiterated Thailand's geographical advantage in terms of its proximity to Asia's biggest economy. Prayuth recently showed his determination to accelerate the project by using his sweeping powers to allow Chinese engineers to join even if they do not have a Thai engineering license, as is typically required by law.

"We want to see more investment from Western countries," Somkid said, adding that "if you don't come soon, all the projects will be taken up by the Chinese and the Japanese."

Post-coup uncertainty

Thailand's slow economic recovery, coupled with political uncertainty under the military regime -- which took power in a May 2014 coup -- have kept investment in Thailand low compared with its regional peers.

According to statistics recently released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, foreign direct investment in Thailand was just $1.55 billion in 2016, down 70% on the year and just a tenth of the 2013 figure. Last year's inflow was the third-lowest among the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

By contrast, outbound FDI hit a record-high $13.2 billion in 2016, nearly an eightfold increase on the year and the second-largest in the region. The surge came as more Thai companies are seeking growth outside the country through mergers and acquisitions and capital investment.

Although Thailand's gross domestic product growth recovered to 3.2% in 2016, from 0.8% in 2014, it is still far behind the 7-8% expansions seen among its developing neighbors and the ASEAN average of 4.5% growth.

Thursday's conference primarily addressed capital market investors, and was joined by representatives from roughly 30 international funds with a total of about $6.3 trillion in assets under management.

Stock Exchange of Thailand President Kesara Manchusree said that in any form, whether in the real sector or the capital market, foreign investment is crucial to reviving Thailand's economy. "The government is trying to stimulate the economy by expanding infrastructure projects, but these projects need funding from the private sector, too," she told the Nikkei Asian Review.

One project the government is heavily promoting is the Eastern Economic Corridor, a new special economic zone that spans three provinces on Thailand's eastern seaboard. To attract high-tech industries to the area, the government plans to upgrade infrastructure such as airports and seaports with a total investment of 1.5 trillion baht ($44 billion) over the next five years. This will be shouldered by both the public and private sectors.

"Companies need to convince the foreign investors to raise more funds," Kesara said. Although the Thai bourse boasted the region's highest liquidity and largest jump in the benchmark index in 2016, this was largely due to the strong presence of domestic retail investors. The foreign investor base is small, accounting for just 20% of trade, as many fled the market after the 2014 coup.

"If all the infrastructure comes online as promised, it would be crucial for the Thai economy," said one foreign banker, who said Thailand has "not been so attractive compared to other Asian countries" due to the military regime.

"Foreign investors have been unable to determine the direction of Thailand due to political issues," Prinn Panitchpakdi, managing director of CLSA Securities (Thailand), told the Nikkei Asian Review. "I hope that the foreign investors were assured by the direct words and promises of the prime minister and his team."

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