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Thai Baht Plunges, Shares Sink in the New Year

Thailand's benchmark stock index has now shed all of the gains it made in the early months of 2013 and has lost more than 15% since the unrest began in early November.

Thailand’s benchmark stock index has now shed all of the gains it made in the early months of 2013 and has lost more than 15% since the unrest began in early November.

BANGKOK – Thailand’s stocks plunged more than 5% and the currency sank to its lowest in almost four years as investors braced for a potential full-blown political crisis in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

Thailand’s benchmark stock index has now shed all of the gains it made in the early months of 2013 and has lost more than 15% since the unrest began in early November.

The turmoil has been triggered by mostly middle-class protesters taking to the streets over the past eight weeks in a bid to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s populist government, saying she is a puppet of her older brother, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

While the daily drops have so far been gradual, they accelerated Thursday, thought to be a pivotal point for Thailand, as an independent electoral commission gathered to discuss whether a snap election called for Feb. 2 could go ahead with fewer than the minimum number of candidates registered due to deliberate obstruction by street protesters.

But the commission’s secretary-general told reporters that after more than three hours of discussions, the committee would adjourn until Friday. If the election is called off, it could create a power vacuum in the country.

By Wednesday’s registration deadline, candidates for the lower house election were registered in 94% of the 500 seats, falling just shy of the 95% required.

“Local stock trade has been hit by negative sentiment after the antigovernment protesters revealed, during the holidays, plans to launch more street rallies from Jan. 5,” said Koraphat Vorachet, market strategist at Capital Nomura Securities. CNS.TH -4.85%

The rallies would take place ahead of a citywide shutdown of Bangkok being organized for Jan. 13 by protest leader and a former member of parliament, Suthep Thangsuban. Foreign selling may have been “unleashed,” by the new developments, Mr. Koraphat said, adding that the risk of more falls would grow if the election is derailed.

The SET Index ended 5.23% lower at 1230.7. Thai banks were among the worst-hit stocks. Siam Commercial Bank SCB.TH -8.36% PCL ended 9% lower, while Bangkok Bank BBL.TH -6.74% PCL and Kasikornbank KBANK.TH -6.73% PCL shed 7.4% each. Advanced Info Service PCL, ADVANC.TH -6.27% the country’s largest telecoms provider by subscriber base that was once owned by a company run by the prime minister’s family, was down 6.9%.

The baht fell 0.7% to 32.93 against the U.S. dollar, extending its 7.4% decline in 2013 and posting the biggest intraday loss among Asian currencies. Both the country’s currency and stock market were hit hard in the summer by fears that the U.S. would scale back its bond-buying program, a fate that was shared by most other emerging markets.

But even neighbors plagued with current-account deficits like Indonesia, which are seen as vulnerable to outflows due to expectations of higher global interest rates, have managed to stabilize whereas Thai markets have continued to fall.

Protesters calling for the removal of Ms. Yingluck as prime minister and the end of her family’s perceived influence over Thai politics have occupied areas of Bangkok and other cities in an attempt to derail the election.

Ms. Yingluck, whose Pheu Thai Party is expected to win the election on the strength of its rural support, returned to Bangkok on Wednesday from her hometown in the northern city of Chiang Mai flanked by military chiefs.

The army’s role in resolving the unrest is thought to be crucial. The military has staged 18 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, most recently when Mr. Thaksin was removed from power in 2006.

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