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A bad blast from the past

Moody's Investors Service yesterday released a report entitled "Asia's Banks - 10 Years Since the Crisis" to evaluate how the banks hit by the 1997 crisis are performing these days - if they were lucky enough to survive.

To sum up, Moody's said in a press release yesterday, "Asia's banks now occupy a stronger position, in view of their good earnings and financial fundamentals."

The credit-rating agency also urged these banks, including many in Thailand, to reform, as time may be running out since the current economic cycle could well peak in the next few years.

Compared with Moody's perception of Thailand 10 years ago, such a positive outlook should make Thai bankers smile.

Turn back the clock to April 1, 1998 - April Fool's Day - when the shares of Thai banks shuddered from the announcement of the decision by Moody's Investors Service to lower the credit rating of the top Thai banks. This caused them to suffer a serious blow in their efforts to regain investor confidence.

Moody's reasoned the downgrade was correct because the major Thai banks were under increasing pressure from rising loan delinquencies and the seizing-up of domestic credit markets.

The Thai economy was then in the middle of its worst financial and foreign exchange crisis - one that would notoriously come to be known as the tom yum kung disease, because of its global contagious effect. And so on April 2, 1998, local newspapers put the news of Moody's downgrade of Thai banks on their front pages.

The US rating agency gave the financial strength of Bangkok Bank and Thai Farmers Bank (now Kasikornbank) a "D" rating. Krung Thai Bank received an "E" in the same category. Siam Commercial Bank and Bank of Ayudhya received an "E+".

The announcement sent a shock through Thai bank shares, as investors were obviously scared about anything with a grading of lower than "C". Moody's later said it would also place the major banks under review for a possible downgrade revision.

A couple of days later, The Nation ran an editorial entitled "Is There Accountability in Moody's Moods?" It said some Thai banks argued the assessments were based on old figures, especially Thai Farmers Bank, which just announced a successful recapitalisation.

In fact, the editorial went on to accuse the rating agency of playing a role in triggering the stampede of "herd" investors out of the region after Thailand devalued its currency in 1997. The financial and banking sectors rely on investor confidence, which was dealt a body blow during their darkest hour.

A former Thai finance minister liked to cite an example from Moody's ratings to paint a picture of how Thailand had lost investors' trust. Thailand's credit-worthiness ranked third from the bottom among all 160 countries covered.

"Can you imagine that? We received the same rating as a least-developed country in Africa," he said.



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