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Thai c.bank warns growth may falter, but stands pat on rates

Source: Reuters - Wed, 23 Apr 2014 08:40 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds detail, economists' comments)

* Monetary committee votes 6-1 to hold rate at 2.0 pct

* Current rate seen still appropriate for growth

* Central bank sees Q1 GDP contracting quarter-on-quarter

* Sees 2014 GDP growth lower than forecast 2.7 pct

By Orathai Sriring and Kitiphong Thaichareon

BANGKOK, April 23 (Reuters) - Thailand's central bank left its benchmark interest rate unchanged on Wednesday, as expected, but said full-year growth may come in weaker than forecast due to the toll from prolonged political unrest.

Southeast Asia's second-largest economy has endured months of turbulence as protesters seek to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. On Wednesday, a Thai court gave the prime minister until May 2 to defend herself against charges of abuse of power, accusations that could bring her down.

The export-reliant economy is set to post its first quarterly contraction in a year in the January-March quarter as consumption and investment fall, the Bank of Thailand said at its policy meeting.

Its Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) voted 6-1 to hold the one-day repurchase rate steady at 2.0 percent, a level last seen in December 2010.

All but one of 18 economists in a Reuters poll had expected no change in the rate, with one predicting a 25 basis-point cut.

Analysts said the central bank's decision was not a surprise as monetary policy can only do so much to support a loss of confidence caused by political factors.

"The BOT's decision to stay on hold doesn't come as a surprise to us and there is only so much that further rate cuts can do to support the economy when the main drag is coming from a slide in consumer confidence and business sentiment," said Benjamin Shatil, economist at JP Morgan in Singapore.

"The question is whether we start to get stabilisation in activity going into the second quarter -- amid a murky political outlook, this remains uncertain."

The BOT would likely not cut rates further this year, after it lowered rates twice to support growth since political unrest hit the capital Bangkok in November.

Kampon Adireksombat, a senior economist with Tisco Securities, expects the BOT to keep the policy rate at the current level throughout the year due to rising inflationary pressures and household debt.

"First-quarter GDP is likely to be disappointing, but the economy should recover after that. Moreover, the BOT mentioned that financial conditions are accommodative enough and are not hindering domestic spending."

After the rate decision, the baht was barely changed at 32.34 to the dollar while the main stock market was up 0.6 percent.

GROWTH OUTLOOK TO BE CUT

Months of sometimes violent protests have hurt domestic demand and tourism, and delayed public works. Consumer confidence also tumbled to a more than 12-year low last month.

As Thailand's crisis is far from over, officials and economists have slashed their 2014 growth projections steadily since the tension erupted last November.

BOT Assistant Governor Paiboon Kittisrikangwan told a news conference that 2014 growth would likely fall short of its 2.7 percent forecast.

"Overall, the economy will still grow this year but lower than the previous forecast ... although exports have gradually recovered, they still can't offset shrinking domestic demand.

"We can't tell in which quarter the economy will recover, depending on the political factor, which remains highly uncertain."

Last month, the central bank cut its growth estimate for this year again to 2.7 percent from January's forecast of around 3 percent and October's projection of 4.8 percent.

Some economists are more downbeat, with Kasikorn Research Center seeing growth of only 1.8 percent this year. In 2013, the economy expanded 2.9 percent.

A general election on Feb. 2 was disrupted by opponents and later nullified by a court, leaving the prime minister with a caretaker government with limited powers to borrow or spend. Analysts say it could be a long time until a new functioning administration is installed. (Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

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