Thai energy billionaire doubles down on crypto despite market turmoil

Mr Sarath Ratanavadi's Gulf Energy Development is seeking licences to operate a brokerage in partnership with Binance Holdings. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand's second-richest man - who made most of his fortune in power generation - is doubling down on his digital asset plans despite increased scrutiny of the crypto industry and a decline in local trading accounts.

Mr Sarath Ratanavadi, chief executive officer of Gulf Energy Development, said his company will boost investments in blockchain ecosystems to diversify earnings sources, even as Thai regulators tighten supervision of fintech and related platforms amid a plunge in the value of many tokens.

The Bangkok-based company is seeking licences to operate a digital asset exchange and brokerage in partnership with Binance Holdings, the world's largest crypto bourse by trading volume, said Mr Sarath, who has a fortune of US$11.9 billion (S$16.5 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

"Digital assets and blockchain technology platforms will be the key drivers for the company's strongest returns, and our aim is to become the country's market leader," Mr Sarath said in an interview on Wednesday (Aug 24). "Recent issues involve individual cases, with the overall market still being sound and having high potential."

Zipmex (Thailand), a locally licensed crypto exchange, and its regional parent last month halted some withdrawals, joining other domestic and global platforms facing a liquidity crunch amid the bankruptcies of Celsius Network and Three Arrows Capital. Thailand's Securities and Exchange Commission has pledged to amend current regulations to provide more protection for small investors.

The number of active crypto-related trading accounts in Thailand shrank to about 260,000 in July from a peak of almost 700,000 in December, official data shows. Trading turnover of cryptocurrencies at Thailand's licensed exchange operators slid to 54 billion baht (S$2.1 billion) in July, the least since January 2021.

The interview with Mr Sarath on the sidelines of a conference organised by the Stock Exchange of Thailand was conducted a day before SCB X, which owns Thailand's second-largest bank by market value, announced the termination of an 18 billion baht deal to buy a majority stake in Bitkub Online, the country's largest crypto exchange.

"While the results of the due diligence exercise did not reveal any significant abnormal issues which are irremediable, Bitkub is currently in the process of resolving various issues as per the recommendations and orders of the Securities and Exchange Commission," SCB X CEO Arthid Nanthawithaya said in a statement.

Expanding into the crypto community is not the only area of diversification for Mr Sarath, who has a degree in engineering from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a master's from the University of Southern California.

His flagship Gulf Energy has not only increased its investment in wind- and solar-energy projects to supplement gas-fired power generation, but has also taken a major stake in Intouch Holdings, which controls Thailand's biggest wireless services and satellite operator.

Brokerages are mixed on the outlook for Gulf Energy shares, with seven recommending buy, seven hold and one sell, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

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