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Thailand is set to hold an election in March finally after several delays since the ruling party took over in a bloodless military coup in 2014. Indonesia will hold its election on April 17 — a rematch between President Joko Widodo and his rival Prabowo Subianto. And India will follow up with its own general elections in April in a heated test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s power and reform-message clout.
There are lots of reasons for investors to be sceptical: After the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivered a surprise victory seven months ago, foreigners dumped the nation’s bonds and stocks in a knee-jerk move. The rise in oil prices at that time helped in cushioning the slide for the crude producer, but credit-rating companies immediately began warning of budget risks and ballooning debt.
Apart from having a healthy scepticism on the polls, here are a few things investors and economists are preparing for as they await the elections:
Election date: March. 24
Incumbent: Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha
While enjoying more benign inflation and steadier economic growth than either Indonesia or India, Thailand has some unique adverse risks as the ruling junta regime is set to stand before the people for the very first time since its takeover almost five years ago.
Investors are very concerned about any disruption to economic activities in a country that has been prone to political instability in the past. In 2014, the electoral disturbances included deadly street clashes that punished the currency and stocks and contributed to a 13 per cent plunge in foreign direct investment that year.
Mark Mobius, the seasoned emerging-markets investor, said it is “doubtful that we will see a huge shift in power as we have seen in Malaysia,” citing the limited time the opposition has to campaign.
The Moody’s analytics the chief APAC economist, Steve Cochrane, is watching Thailand’s growth-dependent tourism industry closely, saying it would probably suffer if the country sees a messy election day. “Any kind of activity that will dissuade tourists from arriving the country would hurt it, an awful lot,” he said.
The analysts also pointed to Thailand’s history as evidence that even an unexpected result in March wouldn’t prompt lasting damage in markets and investment. Any new government is likely to keep up support for big infrastructure projects, said Deyi Tan, an Asia economist with Morgan Stanley.
Thailand has a large ample reserve, current account surplus, and low and stable inflation. What is more, investors are mostly attracted to the low volatility of its currency and bond returns. The primary risk stems from politics, though markets have tended to look through its turbulent history.
Election date: April/May
Incumbent: Prime Minister Narendra Modi
The shock resignation of the central bank governor and Modi’s recent state election losses roiled investors last week, raising additional red flags for Suresh Tantia, an investment strategist at Credit Suisse AG in Singapore. He is against Indian equities in the near term given those reasons and the risk of a coalition government replacing Modi and undoing some of his reforms.
The India chief economist at Nomura Singapore Ltd., Sonal Varma, sees capital expenditures probably taking a hit, especially in the first half of the year as businesses delay investment decisions.
Arthur Kwong, head of Asia Pacific equities at BNP Paribas Asset Management, said he’s staying long on India regardless of the election, in part due to the nation’s favourable demographics and low debt-to-GDP ratio. With over than 1.4 billion residents, India’s growing population has helped underpin one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies.
Election date: April 17
Incumbent: President Joko Widodo
After suffering lots of dips this year, the rupiah is set for a solid rebound to about 14,000 against the dollar in the first half of 2019 as a benign inflation and gradual growth recovery buoy the incumbent, said Craig Chan, Nomura’s head of global emerging-market strategy and Euben Paracuelles, the bank’s Southeast Asian economist.
The president’s good prospects should keep investors perhaps a bit calmer on Indonesia than the other two election economies, even as all three will benefit from soft oil prices and more dovish Federal Reserve, said the Nomura analysts.
Ma’ruf Amin, the Muslim cleric and president’s vice-presidential candidate, has helped bolster the president’s religious credentials but unnerved some investors because of his hardline views and his ability to win over young voters.
The president’s huge lead in the polls has the markets somewhat optimistic, but “it is of concern that he has been pandering to the Muslim extremists, which has frightened both foreign investors as well as the domestic Chinese investors,” said Mobius. “This could be bad news for the expanded investments in the country.”
One more risk to look out for: Indonesia’s current account probably will remain in focus for investors. The shortfall widened to about 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product in the third quarter, its biggest in more than four years.