Thailand bids to become regional financial hub

An initiative driven by Thailand to develop closer financial integration and cooperation among Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) countries could bolster Bangkok’s position as a capital markets and banking centre.

Thailand’s campaign to strengthen fiscal and economic ties with its near neighbours reached a new level in June, with the hosting of a two-day summit for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand (CLMVT). Entitled “CLMVT: Prosper Together”, the event focused on developing a platform to reinforce sub-regional integration and connectivity in matters of trade, investment and tourism.

While much of the media coverage of the event centred around joint tourism promotions and proposals for visa-free travel between CLMVT countries, the seminar’s main focus was on financial connectivity. 

Investing in infrastructure

One of the planks in this platform will be developing financial infrastructure to support the greater flow of capital and information. Veerathai Santiprabhob, governor of the Bank of Thailand (BOT) and a keynote speaker at the conference, emphasised that investing in infrastructure will be crucial to allowing CLMVT countries to work together and meet the demands of the changing financial landscape.

“Having adequate infrastructure, including a backbone payment system, a digital network and a credit bureau, will provide a sound basis to develop domestic financial systems and facilitate closer financial connectivity,” he said, noting that the development of regional ties will help reduce costs within the sector and across CLMVT economies, boosting cross-border trade and the broader use of e-payment systems.

Financial integration to mobilise funds

Another key message to come out of the conference was that further integration of CLMVT financial markets would support growth in each of the five countries, as well as cross-border expansion.

Speaking during a session on the roles of banking and finance in regional development, Chartsiri Sophonpanich, president of Bangkok Bank, stressed that while growth in the CLMVT region is set to remain strong in the coming years, in line with the 6.5-8.5% range posted in 2015, this could be increased further through tighter financial cooperation, thereby boosting the appeal of CLMVT countries to foreign investors.

Such a move, Sophonpanich said, would mobilise funding and put in place mutually agreed-upon mechanisms to minimise and more evenly distribute risk.

Strengthening the bond market

As the largest economy among the CLMVT bloc, and with the most developed capital markets and banking system, Thailand is well placed to take the lead on the financial connectivity initiative.

Thailand’s bond market is already gaining traction among CLMVT countries, bringing the region closer to financial integration.

In 2013 Laos issued the first in a series of baht-denominated bonds, with the latest coming out last year. At a total face value of BT28bn ($804m), the funds helped finance the Laotian government’s infrastructure development programme. 

At the corporate level, Laotian utilities firm EDL Generation has also tapped the Thai capital markets, raising BT6.5bn ($187.8m) in late 2014 to fund the acquisition of power stations from its parent company, Electricité du Laos.

While Laos has been Thailand’s main customer for bond sales, there is strong interest from other countries launching offerings in Thailand.

In 2014 the Cambodian government indicated it could follow the Laotian example by issuing a baht-denominated sovereign bond in 2018. Consultants advising the Cambodian government said at the time that Thailand represented the best opportunity for a sovereign bond launch, as Thai authorities had put in place mechanisms to support such cross-border issues. 

More recently, however, Cambodian officials indicated that any baht-denominated bond would require regulatory reforms, similar to what has been suggested by Thailand in its call to lower financial barriers and boost connectivity.

Thailand’s bond market is also attracting interest from further afield. Year-to-date, four foreign lenders – ANZ Bank of Australia, Central American Bank for Economic Integration, National Bank of Abu Dhabi and Malaysia-based Maybank – were given regulatory approval to tap Thai markets through a baht bond issue.

The Ministry of Finance has also taken steps to boost the bond market’s appeal, announcing that, as of January, it would review applications to issue bonds by foreign issuers on a monthly basis, rather than every quarter, citing increased appetite for baht-denominated issues.

BOT opening doors

The BOT is similarly working to boost CLMVT financial connectivity, including by easing regulations to allow firms operating in the GMS to obtain loans from Thai banks for direct sub-regional investment, without setting a lending cap.

According to Santiprabhob, the BOT is encouraging Thai banks to extend their operations into the GMS to promote trade and investment. As of May, Thailand had at least 30 branches and subsidiaries open in the region. Cross-border money transfers have also been facilitated through the establishing of ATM connectivity between Thailand and both Myanmar and Laos, expanding the reach of Thai banks.

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