Jumbo-sized ambitions

Thai tycoons load up on debt for US$27 billion spending spree, but for some, the parallels with an earlier credit binge are uncomfortably close

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 3:25am

Two Thai tycoons - one a politically connected Chinese-speaker, the other the son of a street vendor - have spent US$27 billion on acquisitions in the past year, mainly abroad. The splurge is more than all Thai firms spent overseas in the previous three years.

The billionaires - Dhanin Chearavanont, 74, and Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, five years his junior - personify Thailand's bull market and Asia's frothy credit, feeding on fast, cheap loans bolstered by a surging local currency.

The worry, though, is that they also represent the financial risks building inside Thailand and elsewhere in Asia amid signs of a slowdown and tighter lending markets. Consumer growth needs to stay fairly robust to justify the valuations paid for these deals, says Standard Chartered analyst Nirgunan Tiruchelvam.

So far, Dhanin and Charoen look to be digesting their spoils without issue, but some warning bells are ringing about the high prices paid and the heavy debt load taken on. Typically such loans are tied to property and a skittish Bangkok stock market that can swing sharply.

"I'm a little concerned about Thailand, to be honest. It's all debt. I've been in Asia long enough to remember how messed up Thailand was," said a veteran Asia investment banker in Hong Kong, recalling the 1997 Asia financial crisis. "Financing was pretty cheap, interest rates were low. And once the music stopped ..."

On April 23, bankers, lawyers and executives gathered in HSBC's Hong Kong boardroom to sign the US$6.6 billion purchase of Thai wholesaler Siam Makro by CP ALL, the retail arm of Dhanin's CP Group conglomerate.

Dhanin's father, Chia Ek Chor, left Guangdong in 1921 and, a quarter of a century later, renamed his seed shop Charoen Pokphand - Thai for "prosperity of consumers" - and began diversifying. Dhanin, the youngest son, a cockfighting fan at boarding school, has run the business since he was 30, growing it into a multinational with ventures across farming, retail and telecommunications. His sons Suphachai and Supakit help manage the vast empire, say people close to the family.

As of March, the Dhanin estate had an estimated net worth of US$14.3 billion, according to Forbes. Gold and gem statues adorn CP's Bangkok headquarters. Dhanin's neo-classical mansion, bristling with high-tech gear and arranged according to feng shui, is reckoned to be worth US$30 million. The fluent Mandarin speaker has strong political connections in Beijing, and one of his businesses owns Shanghai's largest shopping mall.

Dhanin paid more than 50 times Siam Makro's price to earnings ratio after borrowing most of the money for the acquisition from banks - a hefty premium to any recent Asian retail sector deal. "What looks expensive today will be cheap in the long term. Siam Makro is a good asset," Dhanin said then.

That's a positive view shared for now by Tiruchelvam given "a transformation in retail behaviour that is in favour of these businesses".

Charoen, too, has taken advantage of frothy debt markets.

The Charoen-controlled entity that bought Singapore's Fraser & Neave for US$11 billion in January leveraged up the balance sheet of his flagship company Thai Beverage, quadrupling its debt to core earnings ratio. Charoen has indicated a cash payout from F&N will pay down some of that business's debt.

Ratings agencies remain wary. Standard & Poor's, which has downgraded Thai Beverage's credit rating, was critical about Charoen banking too much on the listed company to raise debt.

Like Dhanin, Charoen has weathered crises before.

His father eked out a living by selling seafood omelettes on the streets of Bangkok's Chinatown. The sixth of 11 children, Charoen demonstrated a sharp business brain at a young age, graduating late from fourth grade as he devoted his study hours to selling toys to his classmates.

He quickly rose from a supplier to state-owned distillers to having his own producer's liquor licence, earning the "Whisky Tycoon" moniker, though he himself is said to be teetotal. Backed by his father-in-law, Charoen bet on the financial sector, buying stakes in First Bangkok City Bank and Maha Thankit Finance and Securities, both of which collapsed during the 1997 Asia financial crisis.

Dubbed the "Takeover King" for his incisive acquisitions of stakes in companies struggling after the crisis, he expanded closer to home than Dhanin, focusing on Southeast Asia. Charoen is now grooming his children, including eldest son Thapana, to manage his TCC empire, which boasts a string of luxury hotels spanning four continents. The family business has been estimated by Forbes to be worth US$11.7 billion.