2023 Thailand Outlook
Thailand is steadily recovering from covid disruption. We are seeing an increase in long-term industrial infrastructure investment. Projections for growth suggest the economy will return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. A robust recovery in tourism is already underway, and we are seeing an increase in long-term industrial infrastructure investment.
However, the current global economic slowdown will negatively affect Thailand’s export volumes. We expect 2023 to be a challenging year for supply chain and logistics, with export volumes expected to drop significantly. Most observers remain bullish that Thailand will continue to attract foreign direct investment, as the country is a global hub for several key manufacturing industries that supply global supply chains.
Thailand’s GDP is expected to grow by 3.5 – 3.8 percent in 2023. This continues a steady pace of recovery that saw GDP grow by 1.4 percent in 2021 and 3.2 percent in 2022 – after having contracted by more than 6 percent in 2020.
While there is undeniably a strong recovery taking place, it is uneven. Thailand’s exports account for around 60 percent of GDP, and the current global economic downturn is impacting export volumes. The boost COVID gave the logistics industry is subsiding, with stabilizing shipping costs a key indicator. This signals the beginning of a rough period for logistics, with export volumes reduced by 10-15% compared to previous years. We already see the effects: from November to December 2022, export values dropped from 22.4 billion USD to 21.7 billion USD.
Tourism comprised 19 percent of Thailand’s pre-COVID GDP; as of early 2023, it has recovered to around 10 percent. More than 10 million foreign tourists visited Thailand in 2022, and more than double that number is expected this year. Arrivals from Europe have exceeded expectations, but the tourism sector’s complete recovery depends on increased Chinese arrivals.
Another sector that’s looking up is agriculture. In 2022,Thailand saw a 20 percent surge in agricultural trade. The kingdom is now the world’s 13th-largest exporter of agricultural products.
Thailand still struggles with inflation, which peaked at around 8 percent in 2022. Currently, it is holding at about 5 percent. The problem is more than just the inflation rate: the increasing prices of daily staples like cooking oil, rice, eggs, & pork mean real hardship for the working class.Rising oil prices also present a potential obstacle to a full economic recovery.
THE CHINA EFFECT
Thailand’s continued economic recovery largely depends on the rebounding Chinese economy. Thailand will be significantly affected by any political or economic developments in China that may affect Chinese tourism and consumer demand for Thai exports.
There are three main avenues where the Thai economic recovery benefits from the Chinese economy’s knock-on effects: tourism, relocation of factories due to supply chain disruptions, and a marked increase in China’s domestic consumer spending as COVID restrictions are removed.
The industries in Thailand benefitting from the relocation of factories in China are consumer electronics, electric vehicles (EVs), biotech, and aerospace.
With China reopening faster than expected, Thailand tourism officials have revised their estimate for 2023 foreign arrivals upward to 25 million.
Meanwhile, as COVID restrictions are lifted, Chinese domestic demand for imported products is ramping up, which is expected to mitigate somewhat the drop in Thai exports.
MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS PIVOT AWAY FROM CHINA
The COVID crisis, and now a burgeoning US-China trade war, has revealed the vulnerability of global supply chains that heavily depend on products or components made in potentially hostile countries. Leading manufacturers – including Chinese firms – are expanding or establishing new production hubs in Southeast Asia for export.
Thailand will continue to benefit from this trend, especially in the automotive and electronics sectors. Since US-Chinese trade tensions began mounting in 2018, Thailand has been the second-largest recipient of factory relocations from China to Southeast Asia, with Vietnam leading the way. Thailand’s government is committed to promoting the country as an advanced industrial manufacturing hub in various sectors: upstream & smart electronics, automotive & EVs, bio-based & renewable energy, smart farming, high-value food production, healthcare tourism, digital industry, automation and robotics, and defense.
Sony has transferred over 92 percent of its camera production from China to Thailand. In the future, Sony cameras sold in Europe, Japan, and the US will be made in Thailand.
EV MANUFACTURING INVESTMENT BOOMING
Thailand is at the forefront of developing Southeast Asia’s green economy, especially with their EV policy. Indicators of the country’s great strides in the EV market include: Foxconn has a JV [joint venture] with the national oil company; Toyota has announced a JV with CP, one of Thailand’s wealthiest corporations; other major Japanese auto companies are launching EV manufacturing branches here; Tesla is now set up in Thailand and doing well.
The Thai government has set an aggressive target for EVs to make up 50 percent of locally-made vehicles by 2030. To make EVs more affordable, the current administration has pledged 24 billion baht (approximately 717 million USD) in subsidies for the domestic manufacturing of EV battery cells. The government also plans to reduce excise taxes for EV battery makers from 8 percent to 1 percent.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s state-run oil company PTT announced plans to establish the country’s largest EV charging network, with 7,000 outlets by 2030, up from just 139 charging stations today. Earlier this month, PTT announced a new JV with Taiwan’s Hon Hai Technology Group to produce battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) in Chonburi province.
Chinese EV players are ramping up their presence in Thailand. Chinese firms are keen to assemble EVs and manufacture batteries in Thailand for domestic and overseas markets. Automakers such as GWM, MG, BYD and DFSK are selling their EVs here at lower prices than their competition. Brand reputation for Chinese automobiles is still a challenge and will limit initial market share, but when state-backed Chinese firms announce a significant push to invest, we must take notice.
Thai firms are looking to expand their EV operations overseas as well. Energy Absolute has announced a JV to jointly produce and distribute electric vehicles, lithium-ion batteries, and charging platforms in Malaysia. The CEO of Energy Absolute, Somphote Ahunai, met with Malaysian premier Anwar Ibrahim in January.
The global semiconductor shortage, expected to continue throughout 2023, could pose a hurdle to Thailand’s EV ambitions in the short term.
The tech sector has performed exceptionally well in Thailand. Still, because of global economic headwinds and rising interest rates, the flow of private equity money that funded rapid tech growth is slowing down.
As a result, tech giants like Meta, Amazon, and Google are rapidly pumping the brakes and laying off staff. In Thailand, digital retailers Lazada and Shoppee cut thousands of jobs.
Regarding recruitment, I anticipate the tech slowdown will have a knock-on effect on other industries. We will see less talent migrating toward the tech sector. I
wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of talent in tech looking to shift back to more traditional, predictable sectors, taking their digital marketing and metric analysis expertise with them.
Despite a temporary slowdown in global tech, Thailand will continue to be a leading technology and innovation hub in Southeast Asia. The government has introduced new long-term residency visas to attract foreign workers with advanced technological skill sets.
ENVIRONMENTAL, SOCIAL, AND CORPORATE GOVERNANCE [ESG] & DIVERSITY
The importance of sustainability and DE&I [diversity, equity, and inclusion] to multinational organizations cannot be understated, and I think they will become even more important in 2023.
Investors are looking more closely than ever at ESG metrics. According to Deloitte Thailand’s 2022 ESG and sustainability survey 2022, most C-suite executives consider ESG a top priority, making it a high-profile part of corporate strategy.
In the West, the acceptance of LGBTQ+ is a huge issue. But Thailand has a more open and non-judgmental culture: gay and transgender staff here are unlikely to experience discrimination in the workplace.
One key diversity hiring trend in Thailand is that more females are being proactively recruited for senior leadership roles.
TRENDS & POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
As global travel returns to normal, the MRO [maintenance, repair and overhaul] and aerospace industry will see many opportunities in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. About two hours’ drive south of Bangkok, the U Tapao military base has been repurposed as an MRO hub with passenger terminals. It is one of only a few in the region. With Singapore’s more expensive and Malaysia’s less-skilled workforce, Thailand is exceptionally well-positioned for significant growth in MRO – in addition to its logistics and tourist travel hub advantages.
Elections in May will determine the next prime minister. The results may provide greater clarity for international investors and instill greater near-term political stability. But given Thailand’s history, whether the results provide a long-term solution for power-sharing is up for debate.
Regardless of which parties form the next government coalition, Thailand is always open for business. Throughout the years, the Thai economy has proven resilient to global shocks and domestic political disturbances.
In these times, executive recruiters should focus on their clients’ organizational readiness. C-suite leadership must be equipped with the vision and attitude required for rapid transformation in response to external factors out of their control. Leadership must embrace innovation and take calculated, proactive risks when necessary.
One of the top trends in recruitment set to continue in 2023 is the increasing focus on DE&I in leadership teams. Since 2021, 52 percent of Cornerstone Thailand’s leadership placements have been female candidates.
Another key trend for 2023 is the movement towards skills-based assessment. Technology and transformation have driven organizations to create new roles at every level of their business, such as Sustainability Managers, Directors of DE&I, and Data Scientists. To identify the best talent for these emerging functions, HR & C-Suite leaders will need to break down the skills required for the roles, compose new job descriptions, and break down functional siloes.