2010-05-20

Thailand is Fairing Better than you Think

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The truly wild thing about the uproar in Thailand is not the fact that protesters brought the city to a standstill in an attempt to force the government to resign (that's happened before), or that its capitol city and surrounding areas are under curfew after yesterday's rioting, or that several buildings were set on fire by the opposition in response to military force.

The really unbelievable thing is that through all of that the Thai economy is actually fairing pretty well. Seriously, one of those burning buildings in the papers this morning was the Stock Exchange of Thailand, which happens to still be up on the year and actually outperforming other emerging countries. How can that be? According to a report by Standard Chartered Bank, it's because the markets have already priced in the the disruption.

Talk about political risk analysis. Markets have already priced in the fact that thousands of protesters would besiege Bangkok for weeks, all but shutting down the city and crippling the tourism industry. I don't know if this speaks more to the overall soundness of the Thai economy or to the fact that political unrest is so common in Thailand that the markets have basically stopped noticing. In reality it is probably a bit of both.

To be fair, the Thai government has announced that it is reducing its economic growth forecast for the year because of the disruption (after having recently revised it upward!), but it seems as though the political volatility would have bled through in the form of greater market volatility. It's also true that Thailand has set itself on firm economic footing over the past ten years by building up a large stockpile of foreign exchange reserves and a strong current account surplus, among other economic cushions. All these things combined have analysts actually predicting a rise in the Thai stock market and an appreciation of the Thai baht against the U.S. dollar.

Surely no one would be making such sanguine predictions if this were happening in other emerging markets. If this was Beijing instead of Bangkok, global markets would be having even greater fits than they are now. Of course there is a size difference in the economies in terms of global presence. But it's still astonishing. Essentially what has happened is that Thailand has turned a sustained level of political instability into business as usual, and paradoxically reassured investors that there is no need to panic.

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