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Thailand does a Trump

Dec 20, 2006

Donald Trump gave Tara Conner, Miss USA, a "second chance" after reports that she visited bars before the legal drinking age and got "caught up in the whirlwind of New York". Said a confident Donald Trump, "Tara will be the great comeback kid".

Half-way across the world, the Finance Ministry of Thailand gave a second chance to short term movers of capital by canceling a penalty tax imposed on the night of Dec 18. This had caused a 15% decline in the Thai SET Index on December 19 and resulted in a loss of US$ 22 billion in market value. Foreigners sold US$ 670 million worth of stock.

By the time the New York markets opened on December 19, the government of Thailand announced that the penalty tax on capital controls will be removed immediately.

Look for a rebound in Thai stocks on December 20. Analysts and fund managers around the world welcomed the move and said that it was a good reversal of a bad policy.

We haven't seen any comments as yet from the central bank head, Ms Tarisa Watanagase, but presumably she has lost this round.

So why are we looking at Thailand so closely? Well, like many emerging markets, Thaliand has a lot of support from foreign buyers looking to "invest" in Asian economies that are doing well and, the belief is, will see strong currencies. The coup in September 2006 dampened foreign enthusiasm for a while but, once it was clear that the new government would adopt a pro-growth stance, the money flowed in.

The "penalty tax" of 10%, announced on December 18, was only applicable if foreign money left Thailand in less than one year.

So, why the panic and the market meltdown of 15%? Well, an "investor" these days is defined as someone who stays around for the intra-day trade.

One year?? That's for those boring buy-and-hold idiots who charge 1% flat fees.

The smart hedge fund money (who charges a typical 2% per annum fee for managing money and takes 20% of the profits earned) stays around for the kill - for pricing inefficiencies, for the next "flip".

A one year lock-in is for the loonies.

While there are no reliable statistics available, one can make a case that much of the P-Note money in India is hedge fund money, short-term capital seeking a quick turn.

It turned in May 2006, returned from August to November and ran for the door when the RBI effectively raised interest rates on December 9.

And see the power of foreign capital: a sale of USD 670 million in Thailand caused a USD 22 billion decline in stock market values. India has seen those kind of numbers, too. A USD 2 billion sale by Foreign Institutional Investors (FIIs) in May/June caused a USD 200 billion decline in stock market values.

The point is not that short term money is good or bad - all money has its uses, in some context.

The debate should be: does short term money create so much noise and so much volatility that it can completely mess up business plans of companies and governments?

Well, Thailand caught the speculators totally off-guard with its 24-hour prescription of imposing a penalty tax on money that left within one year. But, just as Donald Trump and the Miss Universe rule-makers succumbed to the beautiful Tara Conner, Thailand has put its own reputation of stable policy-making at risk for the allure of short term capital flows.

"How lucky is Tara? I don't love firing people" said Mr Trump, "we are giving Tara a second chance."

Closer to home, lets see how we treat these different buckets of capital. But, irrespective of the ebbs and flows of money, understand your companies better and do some deep research before you invest.

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