ANALYSIS-Industrial row spells trouble for turbulent Thailand
By Martin Petty
BANGKOK, Feb 17 (Reuters) – While the threat of political unrest has put Thailand’s markets on edge, a costly environmental row threatening to paralyse the country’s industrial heart is already squeezing investment and could inflict greater damage.
A court-ordered suspension of 64 projects worth an estimated $9 billion to $12 billion at the world’s eighth-biggest petrochemicals hub in eastern Thailand is in its fifth month, raising questions about whether a country with a government fighting fires on multiple fronts is a safe bet for investment.
Analysts say the freeze at the Map Ta Phut industrial estate is the last thing the embattled coalition government needs right now and many investors fear resolution of the problem will take a back seat while the country remains locked in a political crisis.
As a sign of growing concern about the outlook for Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, the cost of insuring Thai sovereign debt has risen in tandem with an increase in political tensions, with 5-year credit default swaps recently hitting a nine-month high.
Steve Vickers, president and CEO of FTI-International Risk, said that while protests and talk of coups, assassination threats and even civil war grab the headlines, a protracted standoff at Map Ta Phut may have a bigger impact on investor confidence.
“Unlike political concerns, risk concerns and protests, this is very quantifiable — you can see how much this is going to cost,” he said.
“Thailand is beginning to ratchet up an unfortunate (political risk) score. These are big investments and from the foreign perspective, these issues are piling up … It’s not painting Thailand in a very elegant light.”
Whether this is the result of a favour to big business or a simple bureaucratic oversight, the government is now in hot water, paying the price for failing to heed warnings to set up an independent body to assess health and environmental risks from industrial projects, as required by the 2007 constitution.
A local environmental group finally got its way last year having lobbied successive governments to clean up Map Ta Phut since 1996, claiming pollution from the plants had caused at least 2,000 cancer-related deaths. The group has threatened to target another 181 projects if they, too, fail to comply.
Illustrating the widening financial toll from the injunction, Thai energy giant PTT <PTT.BK>, which has 18 stalled projects, announced last week it had been forced to delay for the second time a consolidation plan aimed at boosting efficiency and cutting costs.
Share prices of PTT, other affected companies and some downstream businesses were on the up in the weeks before the October court injunction — initially on 76 projects — but have largely fallen since, although political uncertainty was also a factor weighing on the market.
MORE STABLE ALTERNATIVES?
Many foreign and local investors say Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s administration already has a credibility problem, so its heel-dragging over the complicated Map Ta Phut saga adds to concerns about government effectiveness and bureaucratic unpredictability and may prompt existing or potential investors to turn to more stable alternatives in the region.
Ford Motor Co <F.N> has put on hold a planned $500 million passenger car plant in Rayong, the same province as Map Ta Phut. Without referring to the injunction, Ford said it was in discussions with the Thai government. Analysts close to the case reckon the row has given Ford second thoughts.
The Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Thailand said 33 percent of its businesses in the country had been adversely affected by the injunction at Map Ta Phut and it has repeatedly warned that Japanese investors might choose to do business elsewhere.
“This is more serious than the airport closure and the unrest resulting from the political uncertainty,” Munenori Yamada, head of the Bangkok branch of the Japan External Trade Organisation, told a recent meeting of Japanese investors.
He was referring to a week-long blockade of Bangkok’s airports by anti-government protesters in November 2008, which stranded more than 230,000 tourists and disrupted trade flows, and riots last April in Bangkok. Both incidents led to downgrades in Thailand’s sovereign credit rating.
And Thailand’s political problems are far from over as lawmakers and “red shirt” protesters allied with twice-elected former premier Thaksin Shinawatra attempt to unseat Abhisit’s “illegitimate” government in coming weeks.
On Feb. 5 Abhisit announced proposals he hopes can get the stalled projects restarted in six to nine months, but many analysts believe this is unrealistic and expect the saga to drag on much longer, a scenario the industry ministry has said could cost $18 billion in terms of lost revenue and jobs.
The government has sought to speed up the drafting of new legislation and the formation of numerous panels, committees and boards to carry out assessments, hold public hearings and help companies comply with regulations, all aimed at appeasing disgruntled investors.
But analysts say that, even if new health and environmental impact measures are in place soon, the government still has no control over the legal process and whether individual projects will actually be approved.
The suspended operations still need to get the nod from a yet-to-be-formed regulator, independent experts and local people who say the plants are seriously damaging their health.
So six to nine months could be wishful thinking.
“This is very serious and it’s something that can’t be unravelled easily,” said Andrew Stotz, an economist in Thailand for more than 15 years.
“This is a case of the people against the government and there’s nothing to negotiate. There’s a very real possibility that new procedures could be futile, because these projects are still likely to be contested.” (Editing by Jason Szep) ((email@example.com; +66 2 648 9707)) ((If you have a query or comment on this story, e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org))