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Thailand sees scope for more fiscal support, lower interest rate

Bangkok

THAILAND'S government is ready to take further action to support an economy growing at its slowest pace in nearly five years, and sees room for further interest-rate cuts, the finance minister said.

Weeks after passing a stimulus programme worth more than US$10 billion, the government still has the fiscal space to do more, Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana said Wednesday in a Bloomberg Television interview in Bangkok.

"The government deems it very critical that we act in a timely manner, in a convincing manner," he said, adding that the leadership would be "very prudent" about any moves.

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Thailand's export-reliant economy has slowed sharply this year, hit by the US-China trade war and a surging currency. The government's fiscal package came a few days after a surprise Bank of Thailand interest-rate cut that did little to dent the baht.

Thailand's gross domestic product rose 2.3 per cent in April through June from a year earlier, sapped by struggling exports, slowing tourist arrivals and a drought. The central bank has responsibility for setting interest rates, and Mr Uttama sees the possibility of it undertaking further easing to boost growth.

"It's still early to say that there will be another" rate cut, he said. "We will monitor the situation. I think we have room for that."

The baht weakened as much as 0.4 per cent against the US dollar from Tuesday's close after Mr Uttama flagged the possibility of looser monetary policy.

Bank of Thailand governor Veerathai Santiprabhob said earlier this month that a planned economic policy coordination committee with the Finance Ministry won't affect the central bank's monetary policy decisions. Thai officials are particularly vexed by the baht, which has gained more than 6 per cent against the US dollar this year as the best-performing emerging-market currency. The Finance Ministry consults closely with the Bank of Thailand on the baht, but it's the central bank's responsibility to decide on currency policy, Mr Uttama said.

Near-record foreign reserves are a sign of efforts to restrain the baht, but heightened US oversight of currency policies limits the Bank of Thailand's scope to step up intervention substantially. At the same time, risks from elevated household debt reduce the monetary authority's room to cut borrowing costs aggressively.

Mr Uttama noted risks from the US-China trade war - "especially as things are still unfolding on the global stage" - but said he believes the economy can still reach the government's 3 per cent growth forecast for the year. "It's clear that everybody is hurt by this, and the sooner it's over, the better for everyone," he said of the trade war. BLOOMBERG