On August 25, former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was due to appear in court to hear the verdict on her trial over involvement in a rice subsidy scandal. If she is found guilty of negligence, she could face up to ten years in prison. Yet Ms. Shinawatra never showed up in court, and many officials believe she may have fled the country.
The rice subsidy program, which led to Ms. Shinawatra’s impeachment in January of 2015 as well as her subsequent trial, started off as a well-intentioned plan to help Thailand’s agricultural sector. It was one of the main selling points for her populist party, Pheu Thai, during the 2011 campaign cycle, and helped to win the party a landslide victory. Approximately 23 percent of the Thai population are farmers, and the subsidy program was intended to help Thailand’s rice farmers earn more for their crop.
The program worked like this: the government would buy rice from farmers at up to double the market price. Then, the rice would be stockpiled and withheld from the global market in order to drive global rice prices up. Once global rice prices rose, the Thai government would sell the rice and make a profit in the process.
At the time the program was implemented, Thailand was the world’s largest exporter of rice. In addition to having a warm, damp climate, Thailand has an abundance of fresh water sources, making it an ideal location for rice production. Furthermore, the Thai people have plenty of experience producing rice–it has been their staple crop for over 5,000 years. (“In the water there are fish, in the field there is rice” is a proverbial Thai saying). All of these factors combine to give Thailand an overall advantage in rice production vis-a-vis many other countries, which have neither the climate nor the experience in such a line of production.
When a country has this comparative advantage in the production of a good, it means that that country can produce that good more efficiently than other countries can. For example, Thailand can produce rice more efficiently than Norway can because its climate and topography are better suited for rice production. Therefore, Thailand will gain the most economically if it can focus its resources on rice production, thereby producing more rice at a lower cost. Thailand can then purchase the goods and services it does not produce as efficiently from countries that do have comparative advantages in those lines of production. If we consider the Thailand and Norway example, we notice that Thailand can sell its rice to Norway and in turn buy oil, a good that Norway has a comparative advantage in. If two countries can play to their comparative advantages and focus on what they can produce most efficiently, they can produce more, sell more, and purchase other goods at lower prices. Thus, two trading partners can actually gain from trade.
It is important to remember, however, that a comparative advantage in a certain line of production does not guarantee that a country will dominate a given market. In designing the rice subsidy program, this was the Thai government’s — and Ms. Shinawatra’s — critical mistake. There is no such thing as a patent on rice production; anyone who lives in an area with ideal conditions for growing rice can do so. Thailand is not the only country with ideal conditions for growing rice. When Thailand withdrew rice from the global market, countries such as India and Vietnam jumped in to fill the gap. The presence of these competitors meant that the global price of rice did not rise as the Thai government had hoped. Instead, rice prices plummeted, going from a peak of $1,000 per ton in 2008 to around $390 per ton in 2014. Thai farmers were edged out of the global rice market, rice exports fell by a third, and the Thai government was forced to stockpile 18 million tons of rice in the first year of the program alone. In the end, the rice subsidy fiasco cost Thailand around $15 billion. Given that GDP per capita in Thailand hovers around $6,000, this is a gargantuan sum.
Despite the heavy losses that the Thai government sustained, then Prime Minister Shinawatra refused to end or reform the program. As the program lost more and more money, government scandals and social unrest ensued. In February of 2014, a group of rice farmers threatened to park 100 tractors at Bangkok’s airport as they had not been paid for their rice. In May of 2014, Ms. Shinawatra was removed from office by the Thai Constitutional Court after six months of anti-government protests, riots, and occupations of government buildings. In July of this year, the military junta now in control in Thailand froze some of Ms. Shinawatra’s bank accounts and ordered her to pay $1 billion in civil damages. And on August 25, the same day Ms. Shinawatra failed to appear in court, her former commerce minister, Boonsong Teriyapirom, was sentenced to 42 years in prison for falsifying government-to-government rice deals with China in an attempt to cover up losses on the rice subsidy scheme.
Ms. Shinawatra’s rice subsidy program, which started off as a well-intentioned plan to help Thai farmers, ended in losses and Ms. Shinawatra’s removal from office. Interestingly, much of the instability that stemmed from the program and the government’s response to its failure is rooted in economics, or rather, faulty economic assumptions. It is true that Thailand has a comparative advantage in rice production. Yet the benefits of a comparative advantage can only be reaped if a country sells the goods it produces well and maintains its market share. Pulling out of the market is very dangerous, for a competitor may be ready and willing to take your place.