Thais Dipping Into Gold Savings Undermine Steps to Rein in Baht

Gold sales in Thailand are surging as households reach for a financial lifeline amid the pandemic, a tactic that risks complicating government efforts to tame an export-stifling rally in the nation’s currency.

Exports of the precious metal surged to a record this year as prices climbed and Thais unloaded jewelry, bars and medallions to raise cash for routine expenses. Bullion traders expect the trend to continue into 2021 as the coronavirus drags on tourism and manufacturing, the mainstays of Thailand’s economy.

“Gold is easier to sell than land or condominiums,” said Pawan Nawawattanasub, chief executive officer of YLG Bullion International, one of Thailand’s top gold traders. “Thai people still have high stockpiles of gold, as the nation has been more of a net importer than exporter in the past.

Quick cash from more than 1,800 gold shops across the nation has been one of the most common ways Thais have weathered the economic downturn, in addition to taking out short-term loans, skipping debt payments and finding second jobs.

As a result, gold exports jumped to 237.4 metric tons during January-October, compared with 170 tons for all of 2019, official data show. Net exports of 135 tons during the first 10 months of this year are the highest since at least 2010, according to Ministry of Commerce figures.

Gold Out, Dollars In

Those gold shipments, however, are widening Thailand’s current-account surplus, helping drive gains in the baht that threaten a fragile economic recovery. The baht has rallied more than 9% from its low in April, a surge also due to U.S. dollar weakness, while gold is up 25% this year after hitting a record in August.

The central bank is seeking to encourage more gold trading using foreign-currency deposits, an attempt to shield the baht from swings in sales of the precious metal when prices spike. The first such program, a venture between Bangkok Bank Pcl and gold marketplace Hua Seng Heng, started this month. The Bank of Thailand didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

“Baht strength will stay with us, as it comes from structural problems” such as a high current-account surplus and low investment, according to Somprawin Manprasert, chief economist at Bank of Ayudhya Pcl. “The planned steps on gold may help curb volatility only in the long term.”

Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy is expected to rebound 3.2% in 2021 after this year’s 6.6% contraction, according to Bank of Thailand projections. With interest rates already at a record low, the central bank has turned its attention to the baht’s rapid rally, labeling it a risk to exports. It unveiled a raft of measures to encourage capital outflows to cool the currency, a task complicated as a weak U.S. dollar sparks fund flows into emerging markets globally.

The Bank of Thailand has seen its foreign exchange reserves jump by almost $100 billion in the past five years to a record $257 billion, or about 47% of gross domestic product, mainly from efforts to stem baht appreciation. That’s caught the attention of the U.S., which earlier this month added Thailand to a watch list of potential currency manipulators.

While a vaccine is being rolled out globally, the pandemic will likely continue to drive up poverty and unemployment rates in the near term. That means Thais are expected to continue selling gold next year, according to MTS Gold Group, a bullion exporter.

Suvirat Namvicha, 22, a Bangkok office worker, sold a gold necklace last month to pay medical bills and other expenses related to her pregnancy after her employer slashed overtime allowances.

“I need money to pay my bills, and selling gold is my best option,” Suvirat said. “I may need to sell my last gold necklace after my baby is born. Looking ahead, I only see rising expenses with limited income.” — Bloomberg

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