By Nophakhun Limsamarnphun
Ex-steel tycoon recalls downfall on 16th anniversary of baht devaluation
On the 16th anniversary of the devaluation of the baht (July 2, 1997), which preceded the Asian financial crisis, former steel tycoon Sawad Horrungruang said, “Back then, companies in my area of business [NTS, NSM and affiliated firms] owed as much as US$2.7 billion to foreign and Thai creditors.
“The loans were denominated in foreign currencies, so the combined debt doubled overnight as soon as the baht was devalued, and then plunged from Bt25 to the dollar to more than Bt50 [debt jumped from between Bt140 billion and Bt150 billion].
“Back then, interest rates also jumped to more than 10 per cent and if you defaulted, the rate would shoot up to nearly 30 per cent. The massive foreign-exchange losses and high cost of funds meant that it was impossible for any decent business to survive.
“In hindsight, the biggest lesson was that if you borrowed in foreign currency, there would be multiple risk factors. In this era of globalisation, whatever happens in the US, Europe or elsewhere is going to effect businesses in Thailand.
“Another lesson for today’s businessmen is that there is no genuine free and fair trade, and we must be watchful as far as non-tariff barriers [NTBs] – such as child labour and environmental issues – are concerned.
“In terms of transparency and disclosure of publicly traded firms, we used to remark a lot about Western regulations concerning such things [during the Asian financial crisis]. Then we witnessed the 2008 US sub-prime-mortgage crisis or ‘hamburger crisis’,” which exposed serious weaknesses in the Western system of corporate governance.
“So [the United States] did not follow what it had preached to Thailand back in 1997,” when the Kingdom sought a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “After 1997, I was declared bankrupt, but as of two years ago, I am now officially cleared of bankruptcy.
“I’m now serving as chairman of Hemaraj Land’s advisory board. Hemaraj and another firm, Sri Racha Harbour, survived the 1997 crisis because their foreign-currency loans were small compared with those of NTS and affiliated firms,” now controlled by Tata Group of India.
“Another lesson for today’s businessman is ‘don’t cheat’. Even though my multibillion-dollar steel empire collapsed during the height of the crisis, I didn’t flee, but helped creditors to try and rehabilitate the firm.
“At 72, I feel I can return to the world of business with some pride, because I know I didn’t cheat.
“ I also want to caution younger businesspeople to be moderate in taking risks. Greed leads to disaster, and prosperity has to come step by step.
“I was pushed into taking high risks back then, because of the need to modernise Thailand’s steel-making industry with new technology costing billions of dollars in new investments. The country needed higher-quality steel for high-rise construction and the automotive industry, so I jumped at the chance to take part in these multibillion-dollar ventures.
“At one point, I was compared to Prachai Liewpairat [former chief executive of TPI Group whose petrochemical empire collapsed during the 1997 crisis], but I think I have a rather different personality.
“Prachai, one of my acquaintances, is an intelligent person and so is his wife. Both did business together and could not accept the total collapse of their business empire overnight. Prachai fiercely resisted ownership change, but in the end he had to accept it – a huge psychological challenge.
“For me, my parting comment is that the game is not over, but we should also remember that we can never lose and we never win.”