Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Thai Firms Bypass Military Government to Invest a Record $13 Billion Abroad

  • Outward direct investment surged to record $13 billion in 2016
  • Stronger baht makes acquisitions and mergers cheaper

Bogged down by policy uncertainty under military rule, companies in Thailand are spreading out.

Thai businesses invested a record $13 billion abroad in 2016, dwarfing inflows of $1.6 billion, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. In contrast, companies in Singapore and Indonesia cut investment overseas last year, while deals by Malaysian firms slumped to the lowest in a decade.

Three years after the military seized power in a coup, Thailand’s economy is losing its might with growth rates that are lagging peers in Southeast Asia. As consumers rein in spending, companies including Asia’s biggest cement maker, Siam Cement Pcl, are turning to overseas markets. Investment abroad totaled $2.9 billion in January to April, according to the central bank.

Click to read how Thailand’s economy is falling behind

“With robust but moderating growth in the home market, Thai companies have been comparatively more ambitious in seeking to become regional or even global champions,” Eugene Gong, head of mergers and acquisitions for Southeast Asia at Deutsche Bank AG, said in an email.

Siam Cement, or SCG, the largest producer in Asia by market capitalization, bought a Vietnamese manufacturer of building materials in March in a deal valued at $440 million, while BCPG Pcl, an owner of clean-energy projects, announced plans in April to pay as much as $358 million for a stake in Singapore’s Star Energy Group Holdings.

Overseas acquisitions announced by Thai companies totaled $1.5 billion this year, compared with $1.7 billion in the same period a year ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That figure stands at almost $48 billion in the past five years compared with $19 billion in the previous period.

Weak Sentiment

The biggest areas of investment from 2011 to 2016 were in finance, extraction of crude petroleum and natural gas, manufacturing of beverages and food, and wholesale trade, according to the central bank. The top destinations were countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

In contrast, domestic conditions remain subdued. Consumer confidence has weakened, while private investment has slumped this year.

A stronger currency and rising cash pile are also helping to drive investors overseas. Thai companies hold about $36 billion in cash, 44 percent more than five years ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Bangchak Petroleum Pcl, owner of BCPG, said the baht’s appreciation provides it with an opportunity to invest overseas at a cheaper cost. The downside is that revenue from abroad is lower when converted to the local currency, it said in an email.

The baht, little changed on Tuesday, has gained more than 5 percent against the dollar this year, the best performer in Southeast Asia. The currency was also among the few gainers in Asia in 2016. In 2015, outward investment slid to $1.7 billion at the same time that the currency lost almost 9 percent.

Thai companies benefit from factors like strong domestic cash flows and access to debt capital at highly attractive terms, David Aronovitch, Morgan Stanley’s co-head of investment banking for Southeast Asia, said in an email.

“Business owners are increasingly confident to make significant forays overseas,” Aronovitch said. “This, of course, is due to attractive growth rates available in adjacent markets, with large populations characterized by high expected growth and attractive potential returns.”

SCG sets aside about $1.5 billion a year on capital spending for its overseas projects in Southeast Asia, which includes a plant in Vietnam and a packaging business in Indonesia, the company said in an email. Cement plants in Myanmar and Laos started operating this year, it said.

The surge in outflows is set to continue with significant investment in projects starting from scratch, said Astrit Sulstarova, an analyst at UNCTAD in Geneva.

“Greenfield investment is a driving force of Thai companies’ international expansion,” Sulstarova said. “Total investment of announced greenfield projects amounted to $15 billion in 2016, a historical high. The implementation of these projects will result in a large amount of outward FDI from Thailand.”

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