Frontier countries have set out their stalls in the race to attract foreign capital, with very different approaches on display.
From nascent stock market development to poverty reduction goals, some of the poorest countries in Asia have made clear what their priorities are and where foreign funding and expertise is most particularly needed.
Representatives of Cambodia, Myanmar, Mongolia and Bangladesh made their business development pitches at the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong last week.
Serge Pun, chairman of Myanmar conglomerate Yoma Strategic Holdings, said most frontier markets in Asia were competing to attract overseas investors, especially to provide infrastructure financing.
The result was that their foreign direct investment (FDI) rules were all quite similar, with substantial tax incentives for overseas investors.
Most of them have ambitious growth targets too, and this could cause destabilising income and social inequalities later, he said.
Myanmar’s stock market is expected to open later this year. Thiri Thant Mon, head of corporate development for Yoma, said an announcement is planned for July and that once the market opening is confirmed, First Investments, a Yoma affiliate company, will be the first company to list.
She said nine foreign banking licences have been issued so far in Myanmar, including three Japanese banks, Singapore’s UOB and ANZ from Australia.
For its part, Bangladesh has the ambitious aim of reducing poverty from 35% to 15% of its population and achieving middle-income status by 2021.
“The private sector is the engine for growth and the country is keen to attract foreign investment into 32 key areas including ready-made garments, textiles, pharmaceuticals, IT and agriculture,” said Syed Abdus Samad, chairman of Bangladesh’s Board of Investment.
Cambodia also has ambitious plans to raise the standard of living, and attain high-income status by 2050. The country’s economy is growing at more than 7% a year, driven by agriculture, garments and textiles.
“Cambodia is a very business-friendly country with almost every sector open to overseas investment,” said Sun Chanthol, senior minister of commerce. For instance, 28 out of 36 banks are foreign-owned.
Sun highlighted Cambodia’s political stability, solid macroeconomic ratios and its government’s determination to develop the country’s physical infrastructure.
“We need to rebrand Cambodia from the image created by the movie The Killing Fields,” he said.
The frontier markets session was enlivened by the youthful exuberance of the Mongolian representative dropping an F-bomb while trying to make a competitive case for his country’s land-locked position between two economic giants.
Stepping in for the head of the investment department, who he said had a sore throat after sampling Hong Kong’s nightlife, 25 year-old Tuvshinbileg Ganzorigt, head of the funding division for the Development Bank of Mongolia, made the audience laugh with his candid comments, explaining he was more used to addressing an online blogging audience than a room full of financial market professionals.
Mongolia is strategically placed between Russia and China, and is blessed with vast mining resources, he said. “Last year we enacted a new investment law that removes the distinction between foreign and domestic investors. We have also extended exploration licences and land permits,” he said.
As frontier countries increasingly target FDI and offer similar financial incentives, they might need to advertise other attractions. Ganzorigt suggested Mongolia (population: 3 million) has appeal in having the highest number of horses per capita: “Our ponies are world-class,” he said.
But people shouldn’t doubt Mongolia’s ambition. Ganzorigt referred to the Mongol warriors having armour only at the front, “so if you turn your back, you’re dead meat. That’s how aggressive we are,” he said.
Asked by AsianInvestor about the development of financial markets in these countries, the response was frank. Sun said: “Cambodia opened our stock market in 2012; so far two companies have listed.” The first listed company, in 2012, was the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority. The second was Grand Twins International, a Taiwanese garment maker, which began trading in June 2014. Sun said many of Cambodia’s private companies are family-held, “so it will be some time before there will be any real corporate thinking in terms of an IPO market.”