Thailand: March Monetary Policy Committee meeting

By Michelle Chia, Economist, CIMB Research and Economic and Sofea Azahar, Economist, CIMB Research and Economics


HIGHLIGHTS

March Monetary Policy Committee meeting

  • BOT unanimously voted to keep the policy interest rate unchanged at 1.75%.
  • Hawks in MPC folded as BOT downgraded GDP growth and core inflation outlook in 2019, signalling monetary policy normalisation is on ice for now.
  • Policy language leaves enough leeway for BOT to revisit an interest rate hike in late 2019, provided economic and political outcomes meet expectations.

MPC votes unanimously for status quo in monetary policy
The Bank of Thailand’s (BOT) Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) voted unanimously to keep the 1-day repurchase rate unchanged at 1.75%. The decision to keep the benchmark interest rate on hold for a second consecutive meeting was in line with our expectation and consensus.

BOT downgrades growth outlook on external headwinds
BOT downgraded its Thailand’s GDP growth forecast from 4.0% to 3.8% in 2019 (CGSCIMB: +4.0%), citing a slowdown in external demand. Notably, policymakers added the weaker economic momentum in advanced economies to the laundry list of growth risks like US-China trade tensions and weaker demand growth in China. Domestic demand remained supported by social assistance as well as improvements in farm and non-farm incomes. However, further delays in the progress of major infrastructure projects present a downside risk to the domestic economy.

Subdued inflation buys policymakers time to remain patient
BOT reduced its core inflation forecast from 0.9% to 0.8% in 2019, but left its headline inflation forecast at 1.0% in 2019 (CGS-CIMB: +1.0%) as energy and food prices are expected to trend higher than the central bank’s previous assessment. Inflationary pressures remain below policymakers’ target range, and are therefore unlikely to trigger significant immediate upward pressure on interest rates.

Consumption supported by weak inflation and welfare spending
Private consumption moderated slightly to 3.5% yoy in December (+3.8% yoy in November). Rural purchasing power improved as nominal farm incomes rebounded 1.4% yoy in December (-6.0% yoy in November), as higher agricultural production (+3.1% yoy) offsets declines in crop prices (-1.6% yoy). Cost of living pressures remain contained, as headline inflation decelerated to 0.4% yoy in December (+0.9% yoy in November), amid lower F&B prices and retail fuel prices. THB87bn of welfare disbursements from December 2018 to September 2019 to low income households are expected to boost consumer spending.

Interest rates on hold for now
Unlike in Jan, when two MPC members favoured a further increase in interest rates, the hawks caved at today’s meeting. Unexpected twists in the run up to the 24 March elections and external headwinds have nudged the central bank into taking a more defensive posture for now. We think the BOT may revisit the debate on resuming monetary policy normalisation towards the end of the year, after the royal coronation and a period of political stabilisation following the elections, and concurrently allow policymakers to assess Thailand’s economic standing. We reiterate our forecast of one policy rate hike to 2.00% by end-2019, under a base case scenario where Thailand continues to grow near its potential growth rate and a pro-military government led by General Prayut emerges victorious in the elections, providing policy continuity.

Monetary policy outlook clouded by wavering Federal Reserve
The current path of the Bank of Thailand (BOT)’s monetary policy normalisation will be milder than in past cycles, with future policy deliberations highly data dependent. Given the stable GDP growth outlook for Thailand (CGS-CIMB: +4.0% in 2019F), one further interest rate hike to 2.00% by end-2019F is warranted to create policy space and address the central bank’s concerns over financial stability, in our view. However, risks to our forecast include slower external demand, tepid inflation and more recently, the Federal Reserve’s increasingly dovish stance on further US interest rate hikes.

 

Originally published by CIMB Research and Economics on 20 March 2019.