Shinawatra shows his hand

Thaksin Shinawatra - prime minister hopeful of Thailand - has been making disturbing noises about foreign investment in Thailand. Could his business interests and political interests be at odds?

Thai telecom magnate Thaksin Shinawatra is unashamedly a man of the Thai people. His political party - Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thailand) - is gunning for election in the forthcoming polls, which could see Shinawatra become the country's prime minister.

However, comments he made on Wednesday show that in order to gain cheap political points at home he is willing to disturb foreign investors. At a press conference, Shinawatra said that there should be a handicap system for foreign investors coming into Thailand. He used the example that if he was playing golf with Tiger Woods, he would not be able to win and therefore the rules of golf have created a handicap system to allow players of different abilities to compete more equally.

Unfortunately for Mr. Shinawatra, international business is not a game of golf - much as we would like it to be. ("Sorry I sliced that IPO - can I have a mulligan? The results are nearly where we want them to be - is that a gimme?") And by making comments that could dissuade foreign investors from coming to Thailand, Shinawatra not only does himself a great disservice but also the people he is aiming to govern.

The truth of the matter is that Thailand - like much of South East Asia - has fallen off the radar screens of international institutional investors. It struggles to retain any relevance in global portfolios. A look at the chart below which hasbeen constructed from figures given out by the SET, shows quite how dramatically international investors have been pulling out of the country this year. This has been so extreme that one analyst now believes that there is no international portfolio money left in the country.

Baht chart

This leaves foreign direct investment as one of the few hard currency earners that the country has left. What is remarkable is how much foreign direct investment has already happened in the past three years. The banking industry has much more foreign ownership than at any time in the county's history. Bangkok Metropolitan, Bank of Asia and Radnasin are all majority owned by foreigners. Siam City Cement has foreign owners. And debt to equity swaps arrived at under the bankruptcy courts have seen much corporate ownership transferred to foreign banking institutions.

Shinawatra's comments could be taken as a reaction to this form of perceived economic colonialism. But they would be misplaced and mistimed. It is too late to turn back foreign investment from Thailand. Indeed the country should respect the fact that strategic investors still want to pour money into the country and try and encourage more to do so. Only today, Orange of the UK has announced that it is to invest in WCS, the mobile phone company owned by the CP Group. Perhaps it is because WCS is a competitor of Shinawatra's own mobile company AIS that he is so keen to have foreign investors handicapped. Who said business and politics don't mix?