The Thai economy hit a 15-year high at 12 per cent growth in the first quarter of this year but the recent political violence could pull growth down by 1.5 per cent, National Economics and Social Development Board (NESDB) secretary-general Ampong Kitti-ampon said on Monday.

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Q1 GDP hits 15-year high at 12%

However, significant downside risks remain should political instability resurface in Thailand and the global decline proved more protracted or steeper than now expected

With a well-developed infrastructure, a free-enterprise economy, generally pro-investment policies, and strong export industries, Thailand enjoyed solid growth from 2000 to 2008 – averaging more than 4% per year – as it recovered from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. Thai exports – mostly machinery and electronic components, agricultural commodities, and jewelry – continue to drive the economy, accounting for as much as three-quarters of GDP. The global financial crisis of 2008-09 severely cut Thailand’s exports, with most sectors experiencing double-digit drops. In 2009, the economy contracted about 2.8%. The Thai government is focusing on financing domestic infrastructure projects and stimulus programs to revive the economy, as external trade is still recovering and persistent internal political tension and investment disputes threaten to damage the investment climate.

Gross domestic product expanded 3.8% in the first quarter from the October-December period. Compared with a year earlier, GDP rose 12.0%—its fastest pace in 15 years, said Ampon Kittiampon, the secretary general of the National Economic and Social Development Board.

“Countries like Thailand that have been dependent on manufacturing exports are most affected,” said Verghis, who covers Thailand and four other Southeast Asian countries. The World Bank released its latest forecasts for Thailand and other economies in East Asia and Pacific on Tuesday. The global economic slump shut down what has been, for the past three decades, the main engine for Thailand’s economic growth: exports. As a result, the manufacturing sector has been badly hit. The Thai government estimated that one million or more workers would lose their jobs this year due to the slowdown. In January, the unemployment rate stood at 2.4 percent of the total workforce – a full percentage point higher than the 1.4 percent recorded in December 2008.

So far, the Thai government has enough capacity to finance the first economic stimulus package and the three-year public investment plan. In the face of shrinking revenues, the government estimates its budget deficit to be about 525 billion baht, or 6 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product, in the fiscal year ending September 2009. It is also seeking loans from domestic and external sources to shore up the budget and support planned investment.

However, the World Bank cautioned that, for public debt to remain manageable, budget deficits will need to be reduced over the next few years and growth needs to return its long-term average, highlighting the importance of using the crisis as an opportunity to enhance growth prospects.

The political unrest in the last quarter of 2009 will continue to dampen tourist confidence into at least the first half of 2010. In addition, the slowdown in growth of the economies from which a large number of tourists come to Thailand, such as EU and Japan, will reduce tourist receipts next year. With the slowdown in exports capacity utilization is expected to fall in Thailand.  A clear exit strategy from the fiscal stimulus has yet to be articulated. Because part of the government’s capital budget has been moved off-budget as part of the stimulus package, some additional capital expenditures, as well as the maintenance expenditures of the newly-built infrastructure, must be incorporated into future budgets once the stimulus package is finalized.

Strong external accounts have enabled Thailand to withstand the contraction in global liquidity. International reserves remain relatively large and external debt – especially short-term debt – is low.

Loan growth in Thailand, however, will slow down next year. As the economy slows down, liquidity in the global markets tightened, and corporate balance sheets weaken, commercial banks have signaled that they will focus more on risk management than on loan growth.

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