Badluck Shinawatra's Failed Global Thai Rice Empire

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/17/2013 03:11:00 PM
I suppose that Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra has received as much grief over her first name as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. But oh, Yingluck, how your name has proven to be unworthy of your fate as of late! Let me explain...

Since her election, Yingluck Shinawatra has continued to court populist support from more receptive constituencies of her brother, the controversial exile Thaksin--folks in rural areas as opposed to the snooty Bangkok city slickers who have long been the most vicious Shinawatra haters. Given the need to enlist their support, what better way is there than to guarantee that the government would purchase agricultural produce at well above market prices? Thinking that they were smarter than your average global rice producer, Yingluck's advisers came up with a grand strategy whose logic went like this:
  1. Thailand is the world's largest rice exporter, therefore its price-setting power is unmatched;
  2. To court rural votes, the government would subsidize above-market purchases of rice;
  3. Thailand would then hoard rice by not exporting it;
  4. By withholding Thai rice from world markets, global prices commanded would increase significantly;
  5. When a certain price level was reached, the Thai government would then be able to recoup earlier losses from buying farmers' rice at above-market prices (and even make a tidy profit).
As it turns out, Thailand vastly overestimated its influence on global prices since the slack was easily picked up by other producers. Further, India ruined Thailand's grand plans by re-entering the global market just as Thailand was hatching its plans. So, the Thai government is now sitting on a huge unrealized loss in the form of an estimated 17 million tonnes worth of rice reserves purchased at above-market cost:
The plan was simple: Thailand’s government would buy rice from local farmers at a generous price, some 50 percent above the market rates. It would hold the rice in warehouses, cutting off exports to the rest of the world. The sudden shortage from the world’s heavyweight champion of rice exports would cause a spike in global prices. Then, payday for the government as it swung open the warehouse doors and sold its stockpile to the world at a premium. Farmers win, the government wins, foreign consumers lose, but then they don’t vote in Thai elections, so what do they matter? The plan was a political no-brainer, except for one problem: Thailand’s government underestimated how quickly the market can kick back at any would-be puppeteers...

And it was Thailand’s great misfortune that exactly one week after it slashed exports, India lifted its export ban, flooding the market with 10 millions tons of rice. Rather than orchestrate a price hike, Thailand helplessly stood by as global prices sank.
All credit to a rating agency (yes, it is surprising) for noting the true cost of Thai shenanigans and calling them out. But still, the farmers have seemingly gotten used to selling at these ridiculously high prices so there's little turning back:
For a year, the government has shied away from public scrutiny of the program, but Moody’s, the credit rating agency, blew the lid off of the story last month when it warned that the program could swallow up an astonishing 8 percent of the national budget, forcing the agency to reevaluate the government’s credit rating. For a government already mired in debt, the warning shot from Moody’s “crystallized their thinking,” Dawe says.
Yingluck, whose Pheu Thai Party draws its support from the country’s rural northeast, has said the program has achieved its goal of boosting incomes for poor, rural farmers. She has now urged them to now give her administration the flexibility to modify the program. In a public address on a local television series, “Yingluck Government Meets the People,” she said the program would remain in place, and that the government would continue to purchase rice, but it may have to reduce its purchase price to make the program sustainable.  As for the Moody’s report, she has promised to rebut the findings with a government investigation into the true cost of the program.
Thai politics remain as contentious as ever, with Thaksinite "red shirts" alike sister Yingluck & company still slugging it out with royalist "yellow shirts." I shudder to think what the backlash from the opposition will be once those losses are realized given that Yingluck vows the programme will continue. I suppose Thais have gotten used to perpetual regime change by now, so what else is new?

Markets are already on alert that Thai rice dumping on world markets may occur as soon as next week in preparation for the government having to buy the upcoming harvest:
Bangkok’s rice buying policy, designed to boost farmers’ incomes, has led to a stockpile of 17m-18m tonnes. With the new crop set to be harvested in October, the Thai government needs to dispose of its existing inventory to raise money for the new purchases. 
Rice market experts are on high alert as Bangkok could issue tenders for about 350,000 tonnes of its rice as early as next week. ConcepciĆ³n Calpe, senior rice analyst at the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, warns the effects on world prices could be serious if Thailand floods the market with its rice. “It could potentially have catastrophic consequences,” she said.
 At any rate, damage control is already underway to minimize the financial fallout--including a mooted ratings downgrade.

7/31 UPDATE: Thai authorities tried selling some of the stockpiles this week, but bidders are few since there are doubts about the quality of rice that has been stored for quite some time now:
The commerce ministry said Monday that the government's first sale from its stockpile this year is likely to move less than 100,000 tons, compared with a goal of 350,000 tons, as most offers to buy were too low. Traders said market prices are about $480 a ton, while bids for government sales are coming in at about $380 a ton because of concerns over quality.