When Thailand’s military-aligned Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) sought to build an election campaign war chest, party stalwarts organized a Chinese-style dinner for its closest big business allies.
The soirée attracted a who’s who of the Thai business elite, with A-list representatives from Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group, ThaiBev, King Power Group, Boonrawd Brewery, Central Group, among others, at the top tables, according to news reports at the time.
The banquet raised 622 million baht (US$22 million) for the new party’s coffers, corporate donations the Election Commission subsequently ruled were above board and not in violation of electoral rules or regulations.
Months later, PPRP defied expectations by winning the March 24 election’s popular vote, returning to power coup-maker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his pro-stability order in the form of an elected coalition government.
That status quo, critics and analysts say, unevenly promotes the kingdom’s “five families” – known widely as the founding clans behind the CP Group, ThaiBev, Boonrawd, King Power and the Central Group – at the oligopolistic expense of smaller, less-connected businesses and entrepreneurs.
Those five companies grew in power and profits during coup-maker Prayut’s first five-year term (2014-2019), with some expanding aggressively into new businesses like property development, while others like CP and Central Groups hyper-extended their reach into provincial retail.
But as Thailand’s “big five” corporations grow and thrive, associated risks are rising as the economy slows and opposition critics increasingly point to the companies and their founding clans as complicit in perpetuating the kingdom’s yawning and politicized wealth divide.
Newly granted state concessions and big-ticket contracts give certain, though not conclusive, credence to the criticism, with some critics and analysts viewing the deals and privileges as payback for donations made to PPRP’s election campaign.
The examples, critics and analysts say, are rich and many. Asia Times’ requests for comment from most companies mentioned in this report did not immediately receive replies.
The CP Group said in an email reply that: “For almost a century, CP Group has been an active contributor to the growth and development of Thailand’s economy to the benefit of the country and its people”, including in new capital-intensive investments in 5G and railways.
King Power, one of PPRP’s top backers, had its monopoly on duty-free retail at Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi airport renewed and extended to three other major airports for a decade, just two months after the March election but before Prayut’s new PPRP-led coalition was even seated.
A CP Group-led consortium, meanwhile, was given in October a US$7.5 billion contract to build a 220-kilometer high-speed railway connecting three airports in and outside of Bangkok, despite the fact the conglomerate has no apparent previous experience in major infrastructure-building.
CP Group’s telecom arm, True, was viewed by market analysts and independent researchers as the biggest beneficiary of Prayut’s junta’s executive order in April, weeks after the election, to extend by five years the kingdom’s three telecom operators’ payback period on their 4G licenses.
ThaiBev and Boonrawd, beer and liquor duopolists, benefit from high and ever-rising government tariffs on beer and wine imports, and other scale-related production regulations that have prevented the entrepreneur-driven global craft beer boom from taking real root in Thailand.
More broadly, the “five families” strong grip on business sectors, ranging from agriculture to alcohol to retail, and the state regulations that in ways cosset those market positions, has arguably stunted development of the kingdom’s 5.2 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
That’s in part, no doubt, because Thailand’s SMEs are largely capital-starved, with the country’s big banks preferring to lend to the sure thing of the “big five” over perceived as riskier small-scale businesses and entrepreneurs.
The Thai state’s dedicated SME Bank has only 4,000-5,000 loan accounts among a potential client base of millions; Bangkok Bank, the nation’s leading lender and another guest at PPRP’s fund-raising banquet, meanwhile, recently announced it was curbing its SME lending due to the comparative risk of smaller scale loans.
But the “big five’s” concentration of economic power carries its own risks. One analyst at a global investment bank believes that the “big five” have grown “too big to fail”, as any sign of financial distress at any one of the companies would quickly raise market concerns of systemic risks in the banking sector.
While Thailand’s banks are highly regulated by the Bank of Thailand, the central bank, there is little to no regulatory oversight over the “big five’s” activities, investments and financial leveraging decisions, the same analyst noted.
That risk, he says, is rising in particular in the property sector, with certain “big five” companies have moved in a big way into condominium and other property development and contributed to a glut. Recent reports suggest there are over 500,000 empty housing units in the capital city alone.
Others point to the “big five’s” participation in a massive expansion of retail, both in Bangkok and upcountry, at a time the average Thai consumer is badly overextended, with household debt at 79% of GDP and rising, the second highest rate in Asia.
More pointedly, critics contend the “big five’s” economic domination is at the core of the country’s stubborn wealth divide, which various measures show grew while the “big five” thrived under Prayut’s previous five-year rule.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the opposition Future Forward Party, told Asia Times in a November interview that “too many” Thai business sectors face “oligopolistic and monopolistic structures” that give “a few families rent-seeking opportunities to create an enormous amount of wealth.”
Read Asia Times’ recent exclusive interview with Thanathorn here.
He said the “five families” and other Thai capital groups accumulate wealth through regressive means, namely by allying with political power-holders to make laws and regulations that stymie competition and thus pave the way for monopolistic backward integration of production supply chains.
“Big (five) corporations should innovate and use the products of innovation to compete with the world,” said Thanathorn, himself the billionaire scion of an automotive parts company. “Big companies should not steal jobs and businesses from second and third tier companies.”
His Future Forward Party, which lists oligarchy-busting in its manifesto, has announced it will sponsor a bill in parliament to promote more competition in local alcohol markets, a not-so-veiled challenge to ThaiBev and Boonrawd’s long-held duopoly.
(On December 11, in a comparative irony, the Election Commission ruled to disband Future Forward over an alleged violation of election campaign financing rules limiting the amount an individual may donate. The Constitution Court will make a final judgement on the EC’s ruling.)
A ruling against Future Forward, some suggest, could redound on the companies and clans his party is now targeting partly in the name of wealth redistribution.
Credit Suisse, an investment bank, claimed in its global wealth report released in late 2018 that Thailand was the “most unequal” economy in the world. The report claimed that 67% percent of the nation’s wealth is held by 1% of the population in 2018, rising rapidly from 58% in 2016.
That’s seen in individual wealth tables. The CP group’s Chearavont clan topped Forbes’ Thailand’s 50 richest list this year, with a combined family wealth of $29.5 billion. The Central Group’s Chirathivat family placed second at $21 billion, while ThaiBev founder Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi was fourth at $16.2 billion.
The World Bank, meanwhile, has cited various measures and reports that show poverty and inequality worsened while Prayut’s junta was in power and the allied “five families’” wealth and market power grew.
Thailand’s official poverty rate rose year-on-year in 2016 to around 10% of the population, while the bottom 40% of the population in terms of wealth saw their average consumption and income decline from 2015-2017 under Prayut’s junta’s rule.
A recent Gallup World Poll, also cited by the World Bank, showed perceptions of financial well-being, standards of living and income have worsened among all Thais beginning in 2016.
Prayut’s new elected coalition government claims to give priority to addressing the wealth divide and uplifting the poor, witnessed in various cash handout policies for the elderly and youth, and a widely recognized as flawed welfare card scheme.
Like coup-ousted populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Prayut’s policies prioritize what critics and analysts refer to as “helicopter money” that does little to stimulate sustainable growth and even less to address the structural and regulatory issues that cosset big business and disadvantage SMEs.
A market competition promotion initiative, as with previous administrations’ half-hearted attempts to level local corporate playing fields, failed to gain traction under Prayut’s coup government, while regulations that favor big over small businesses were in certain key sectors stiffened not softened.
It is still debatable how much of Thailand’s still entrenched political conflict is at its core an expression of the nation’s wealth divide, and how much the issue has been mobilized for particularistic political interests, as Thaksin’s ultimately hollow “Red Shirt” movement showed.
But Thailand’s gathering slowdown, with GDP growth set to fall below 3% this year and depending on the effectiveness of various stimulus measures could slip further in 2020, is putting Prayut’s pro-poor claims to a high-stakes political test.
While the “big five’s” profits grow as the broader economy slows, the PPRP government will be increasingly hard-pressed to dispel opposition criticism and coincident rising popular notions it favors big over small business, rich over poor.
If and as that political reality gains wider currency, the stability Prayut’s PPRP-led government vowed to deliver the “big five” and other corporate elites – both at its fund-raising dinner banquet and on the campaign trail – could soon come undone at their particular expense.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the CP Group’s reply to Asia Times’ request for comment.