Blog

View posts by country or region

By Gavin Bowring, Asean Confidential

It might seem odd to think of Cambodia as a haven of political stability. Labour unrest in Cambodia’s garment factories turned violent in January this year, while the country’s opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has boycotted Parliament for six straight months in protest of last year’s “flawed” general elections.

Nevertheless, in the space of a week, Cambodia has seen thousands of Chinese residents in Vietnam fleeing across the border as a result of escalating tension between China and its southern neighbour, Vietnam. Meanwhile, the recent military coup in Thailand led to implicit suggestions by the lawyer of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra that Cambodia might be willing to host his “government-in-exile”, though these suggestions have been denied by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. 

With so much uncertainty permeating the financial markets, not least emerging markets, it’s heartening to see a big, solid multinational making a big, solid €10bn bet on EM growth.

On Tuesday, German chemicals group BASF announced plans to double annual sales in the Asia-Pacific region to €25bn by 2020, including €2bn to come from new businesses and acquisitions.In a decisive shift away from Germany-centred thinking, it will raise local content from around 60 per cent now to 75 per cent, and base 25 per cent of research and development in the region. 

If Cambodia is anything to go by, physical size and a population of just 15m are immaterial when it comes to building a successful garment industry. But as a series of strikes were brought to a close on Friday with a rise in the minimum wage for the sector of 20 per cent, globally recognised brands such as Levi Strauss, Gap and H&M will have to decide whether Cambodia is likely to remain their most cost-effective option. 

Foreign direct investment into the Asean countries has risen strongly in the past few years and is now on a par with FDI into China. As Hak Bin Chua, Asean economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch writes in a report on Friday, this “is in sharp contrast to a decade ago, when there were widespread fears that Asean would be marginalised by China’s rise.”

The change is partly a result of political issues such as recent territorial tensions between Japan and China which are diverting some Japanese investment south. But is is also driven by social and economic factors such as demographics that will not change direction any time soon. 

The great outsourcing story used to be from Europe to India (IT) and China (manufacturing). But now southeast Asian countries are the preferred destination, and not just for western companies. India and China are outsourcing to their Asean neighbours too.

That’s according to Adecco, the world’s largest provider of HR services, which says its clients increasingly want to hire in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. 

For months, residents in an affluent part of Pattaya, a seaside resort town near Bangkok, assumed that the three foreign men who lived in a nearby luxury villa ran an import-export business, because, as one resident told local media, people “who looked like businessmen” came and went throughout the day.

It was not the sort of export-import the locals envisaged, as they learned when the villa became the target of one of Thailand’s biggest-ever drug busts in late November. 

The debut of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority on Wednesday was the most exciting IPO in Asia this year. It marked the start of business on the brand new Cambodian Securities Exchange, underlining the extent of change in this fast-growing country once under the grip of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Plus, it’s already up 55 per cent.

Laos launched its exchange last year and Myanmar is now planning one as well. How much difference can a stock exchange make? 

Rice is more than just another commodity: for 3bn people it is a vital part of their daily diet, and when prices hit over $600 a tonne, or some 50 per cent above their 10 year average, they start to worry.

The 10-year average for Thailand’s benchmark 100 per cent grade B white rice is around $400 a tonne but today it is selling for $619 a tonne. That is partly because Thailand, the world’s biggest exporter, has said that it would pay its farmers Bt14,800/tonne – equivalent of about $800/tonne in the export market, in a move aimed at boosting the incomes of rural farmers. 

For those who want a bit of exotica in their portfolio, the world of frontier markets is getting a little broader. Hot on the heels of the newly opened Laos exchange, Cambodia is getting in on the act. Maybe.

After years of on-again off-again negotiations, the Cambodian government has finally licensed the new Phnom Penh exchange, a joint venture with the Korea Stock Exchange, which owns 45 per cent. 

Smart Mobile and Star-Cell, two of Cambodia’s larger mobile telephone operators, have formalised their merger, the first of what is expected to be a wave of consolidation in one of the world’s most crowded telecoms markets.

The new company, to be called Smart Mobile, will be 75 per cent owned by Cyprus-based Timeturns Holdings Ltd and 25 per cent by a subsidiary of Sweden’s TeliaSonera, Star-Cell’s parent. 

If Cambodia is known for investment at all, it is known for low-cost, low-margin industries such as textiles, but there are signs that the country could be starting its own journey up the value chain.

Minebea, the Japanese precision component manufacturer, has just announced that it is to build a Y5bn component factory near Phnom Penh, in a move to build up its Southeast Asian production network.

 

China’s push to increase its power and influence in south-east Asia is proceeding apace. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-serving prime minister, is the latest leader to make the pilgrimage to Beijing.

After a welcoming ceremony with a military band, Hun Sen held talks with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. He was also scheduled to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao and top lawmaker Wu Bangguo during his five-day stay. But it wasn’t just energy and infrastructure on the menu. 

Could frontier market Cambodia become a serious contender for Asian tiger status? The country certainly has a buzz about it: flights into the capital are filled with businessmen, the once rural outskirts of Phnom Penh are fast turning into one big construction site, and the roads of the city centre are gridlocked with Lexus four-wheel drives.

According to a UBS note to its clients today, the country is starting to make a roar, albeit small.  And when it comes to manufacturing, Cambodia is fast becoming a ‘mini tiger’.