Thai central bank holds rate steady, cuts growth outlook

By Orathai Sriring and Kitiphong Thaichareon

BANGKOK (Reuters) -Thailand’s central bank kept its key interest rate steady on Wednesday, as expected, saying the current level was suitable to support the country’s economic recovery, while cutting its growth outlook.

The Bank of Thailand (BOT) also said it had factored in uncertainty over the potential impact of the government’s controversial signature policy of giving away 500 billion baht ($14.38 billion) to 50 million Thais to stimulate sluggish spending.

“Rates are considered low, but were suitable for the Thai economy in the medium-term,” assistant central bank governor Piti Disyatat told reporters after a policy meeting, adding rates were able to handle risks that may arise from the government’s “digital wallet” policy.

The handout plan, slated for May, could face legal challenges and a staunch opposition in parliament. Economists and some former central bankers have said it could result in fiscal strains and stoke inflation.

But last week, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said the economy was in “crisis”, stressing the need to forge ahead with the plan.

In a unanimous vote, the BOT’s monetary policy committee ended a year-long tightening cycle, keeping its one-day repurchase rate at 2.50%, the highest in a decade, after hiking rates by 200 basis points since August last year to curb inflation.

But the BOT also cut its 2023 and 2024 economic growth forecasts, raising speculation it may start to cut borrowing costs from the second half of next year if domestic and global demand do not pick up.

The Bank lowered its growth forecast for this year to 2.4% from 2.8% seen earlier, and cut its 2024 growth outlook to 3.2% from 4.4%. The economy expanded 2.6% last year.

However, in a scenario where the digital wallet policy is implemented, the BOT said it sees next year’s growth at 3.8%.

Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy grew 1.5% in the third quarter from a year earlier, its slowest pace this year.

The current interest rate is appropriate and ensures ensuring sufficient policy space “in light of an uncertain outlook,” the BOT said in a statement.

All 28 economists in a Reuters poll had predicted the BOT would stand pat on Wednesday, with median forecasts showing no policy change until at least July 2025.

“Risk between growth and inflation is roughly balanced,” said Kobsidthi Silpachai of Kasikornbank, adding that rates would be held steady for a year.

Capital Economics, however, said “with inflation low and the recovery likely to underwhelm, we think policy cuts are likely in the second half of next year”.

Thailand’s headline consumer price index (CPI) in October declined 0.31% on-year.

The BOT predicts headline inflation of 1.3% this year, versus 1.6% projected earlier, while 2024 inflation was seen at 2.0%, not factoring in the impact of digital wallet spending, compared with 2.6% projected earlier. The BOT targets headline inflation in a range of 1% to 3%.

The BOT expects foreign visitor arrivals at 28.3 million this year and 34.5 million next year, versus a pre-pandemic record of 39.9 million arrivals, whose spending accounted for more than 11% of GDP.

Exports, another key growth driver, are expected to fall 1.5% this year due to softening global demand, but are projected to increase 4.3% next year, versus a previous projection of a 1.7% drop and a 4.2% rise.

($1 = 34.78 baht)

(Reporting by Orathai Sriring, Kitiphong Thaichareon, Satawasin Staporncharnchai and Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Martin Petty, Miral Fahmy and Kim Coghill)