Firms line up for Myanmar opportunity

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By Jaspal Bindral (group executive director and CEO Asia, Standard Chartered)

As senior decision-makers from around the globe descended on Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw for the World Economic Forum on East Asia recently, multinational companies were lining up to explore the huge commercial opportunities in the country.

At Standard Chartered, we’re seeing strong, and growing, interest in Myanmar from clients across the globe and across all business sectors. With the European Union lifting the last of its non-military sanctions on Myanmar in April, European corporates, hungry for growth as demand at home remains weak, have shown the greatest interest in the country.

Multinationals are starting to cautiously put money to work in Myanmar. Many have already opened representative offices or branches in the country, recognizing that the pace of reform is now so rapid that you have to have people on the ground to seize the opportunities as they unfold.
Multinationals have long since spotted the economic potential of this vast country with a population of more than 60 million. Myanmar, once the world’s largest rice exporter, is rich in natural resources, such as oil, gas and timber. The country is also strategically located between India and China and is a member of the fast-growing ASEAN trading bloc, which it is scheduled to chair next year.

Often regarded as Asia’s last large frontier market, Myanmar has opened up much faster than expected in the past year, because the government has set its sights firmly on economic reform to create jobs and lift incomes. The passing of a new foreign investment law at the end of 2012 marked an important milestone in creating a more investor-friendly climate in the country.
This spring, Myanmar took another major step by inviting global telecom companies to bid for nationwide telephone service licenses, and companies taking part have been impressed with the transparency of the process. With less than 10 percent of its citizens currently using mobile phones, Myanmar is the world’s largest untapped cell phone market. A leap in connectivity could accelerate the country’s economic development, as we have seen in many markets.

Three large special economic zones (SEZs) are now being set up in Myanmar, including Dawei, with plans for a major deep-sea port, and Thilawa, with a large-scale industrial zone near Yangon – once one of Asia’s most thriving cities. Supported by Thailand and Japan, the SEZs promise to transform the country’s economic future, capturing fast-growing trade and investment in Asia.

Some changes are evident already to anyone visiting Myanmar. Hotel rooms going empty a year ago are now full to capacity, at four or five times the rate, as the country’s vast tourism potential begins to take off. ATMs, which were once a rarity, are found in the dozens in major cities, following agreements with two global payment companies. So you can withdraw Myanmar kyats using your Visa or MasterCard credit card.

These developments underscore the government’s willingness to draw upon investment and experience from abroad to open up Myanmar’s economy. Another good example is the work underway to build a modern financial system, for which Myanmar is seeking the help and advice of institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Standard Chartered and other financial institutions.

Doing business in Myanmar, however, remains difficult, as many of our clients tell us. The financial system is at an early stage of development. Very few people have bank accounts and facilities for wire transfers are poor. The speed of legal and regulatory change adds uncertainty to the challenges, as do skill shortages.

Moreover, targeted US sanctions against Myanmar remain in place, including in key areas such as financial services. Given that the bulk of global trade is denominated in dollars, until the US removes uncertainty by lifting the sanctions, as the EU has done, potential US and other investors and trading entities will continue to hesitate making commitments.

Addressing the long list of political, economic and social challenges will take time after Myanmar’s five decades of isolation. But it’s neither reasonable nor desirable to expect everything to happen overnight. The democratic process needs time to work and it’s crucial that the country gets its reform process right. What’s also critically important is that foreign investment into Myanmar takes place in a sustainable manner that does not promote change for change’s sake, but for the “betterment of society”, as called for by Aung San Suu Kyi at the ASEAN 100 Leadership Forum in Yangon in December.

One thing seems certain – Myanmar is not turning back. And no one should doubt the huge potential the country has as it seeks to catch up with its ASEAN neighbors. Myanmar’s GDP grew 6.5 percent in the last fiscal year and may reach 6.75 percent in 2013, according to the IMF. Official Myanmar figures suggest foreign direct investment was up by five times in the same period, to more than $1.4 billion. We believe this momentum will pick up further – with investment diversifying from the energy sector to manufacturing, tourism, agriculture and banking – as multinationals buy into Myanmar’s great prospects.

Source: China Daily

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