by Nathan Slaughter
Just a little more than a decade ago, most investors wouldn't put a dime in this emerging country, even if they were using someone else's money.
But plenty can change in a short amount of time, and today the story is vastly different.
Now this country's Finance Ministry has raised its GDP outlook three times in the past six months. Its once beleaguered currency is sitting at a 13-year high. And even huge multi-national companies like Ford (NYSE: F) and Toyota (NYSE: TM) have taken notice, plowing billions of investment dollars into this market.
I've done my own research, and I am bullish enough to predict this "sleeper" economy to be one of the biggest winners for 2011. You see, a lot is going right for Thailand, and it looks to be following in the same footsteps as China, Russia, India, and Brazil.
Economic growth that makes most nations jealous
I first took a shine to Thailand this past July. The European debt crisis was in full swing at the time, sending the Dow into a 1,200 point freefall during the prior two months. Riskier emerging market stocks are typically hit even harder during these periods of uncertainty.
But Thailand held its ground. In fact, it swam against the current and moved higher. It was a good sign the Stock Exchange of Thailand wasn't marching in lockstep with the New York Stock Exchange.
The country wasn't immune to the global recession. But after a mild slump, it has come roaring back. In fact, GDP kicked into overdrive and expanded +12% during the second quarter, the strongest growth rate in 15 years. And unlike other emerging market neighbors, there is more than one growth driver involved.
Rising industrial production, booming agricultural and electrical exports, increased domestic consumption and a thriving tourist trade have all played a role. Today, this $270 billion economy has grown to become the second-largest in Southeast Asia (behind Indonesia). Multi-national companies have even taken notice, showering the country with billions in foreign direct investment.
Exporters have also been diversifying away from Europe toward healthier trading partners like Malaysia and Indonesia. And the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (which axed tariffs on 90% of goods entering the Chinese marketplace) has made it easier for Thailand's producers to get their goods in the hands of voracious Chinese shoppers.
Of course, you can't mention Thailand without acknowledging the sharp and sudden devaluation of Thailand's baht that sparked the volatile Asian currency crisis of 1997. More than a decade later, many of the nation's stocks are still feeling the lingering effects of the hangover.
I should also note that Thailand also has been plagued by political unrest. Earlier this year, the ouster of a former populist leader provoked fierce anti-government demonstrations. Needless to say, headlines involving riot gear and military crackdowns don't inspire confidence.
Fortunately, things have quieted down and it's back to business as usual. For example, Thailand's CentralWorld shopping mall, damaged during the protests, reopened last month and is now attracting more than 100,000 customers daily.
Meanwhile, buoyant prices for agricultural commodities like rice have boosted farm income and spurred domestic consumption. In fact, consumer confidence has just rebounded to a 28-month high. Accommodative monetary policies and $40 billion in investment in railways and other infrastructure projects haven't hurt either. All of these factors explain why Thailand's Finance Ministry has raised its GDP outlook so quickly.
More than a decade after the currency crisis, Thailand is back. At this point, the Thai Capital Fund (NYSE: TF) looks to be the best option for stateside investors. The closed-end fund holds a cherry-picked portfolio of Thailand's top companies, and it's the top performer in its class in the past year.
So far in 2010 the fund is up +64%. That's a massive run, but I'm expecting good things ahead. Thailand's growth story is not limited to a single year.
The best part of this: The fund is trading at a 12% discount to its net asset value. That means you're buying $1 worth of Thailand's best and most dynamic companies (without leaving the U.S. markets) for $0.88. That discount helps to make an undoubtedly aggressive play much more attractive.
Disclosure: Neither Nathan Slaughter nor StreetAuthority, LLC hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.