Thailand evokes Temasek as junta tries to revive state firms

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand is seeking to set up an investment holding company next year for government shareholdings, part of a wider effort to improve the performance of state-controlled enterprises.

A law to boost the governance of such firms and enable the creation of the holding company may be enacted by March, according to Ekniti Nitithanprapas, the director general of the State Enterprise Policy Office."We'd like the holding company to work in an efficient way like Temasek or Khazanah," Mr Ekniti said in an interview in Bangkok on Wednesday, referring respectively to Singapore's investment firm Temasek Holdings and Malaysia's sovereign fund Khazanah Nasional Bhd.

State enterprises are planning 446 billion baht (S$17.7 billion) of investment in 2017, according to the policy office. That's equivalent to about 3 per cent of Thailand's gross domestic product, underlining the importance of ensuring the companies are managed well.

The new law is supposed to create a policy committee and a master plan for the sector, as well as boost transparency, formalize the way directors are appointed and evaluate corporate performance.

"This reform is crucial for long-term economic development," said Santitarn Sathirathai, head of emerging Asia economics at Credit Suisse Group in Singapore. "Ministries are in charge of state enterprises and often wear too many hats as shareholders, rule setters and referees, which sometimes breeds conflict of interest and inefficiencies."

The stock market signals there's scope for government businesses to be better managed.

The State Enterprise Policy Office's website lists six companies as publicly traded state enterprises: oil explorer PTT, Krung Thai Bank, Thai Airways International, Airports of Thailand, MCOT and PTT Exploration & Production.

An index of those companies has climbed 23 per cent in the past five years, less than the 54 per cent advance in the benchmark SET index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The Thai administration said a number of listed and unlisted businesses will go into the holding company. Details haven't been finalized yet. There were 52 state enterprises with total assets of 13.5 trillion baht and liabilities of 10.6 billion baht as of June 2016, according to the State Enterprise Policy Office's website.

While the proposed law is a welcome initial step, the key will be how well it's implemented and whether directors have enough independence and power, according to Santitarn.

The reform is a priority for the military-run government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, according to Ekniti.

Annual growth in Thailand - Southeast Asia's second-largest economy - decelerated to 3.2 per cent last quarter, one of the slowest expansions in the region. The junta is leaning on increased public investment, subsidies for farmers and cash handouts for low-income earners to bolster an economic outlook clouded by political flux.