Thursday, 23 February 2012

Economic miracle in Myanmar may take time to materialise

Country has great potential, analysts say, but its currency and banking problems will slow growth

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Guanyu 道 said...

Economic miracle in Myanmar may take time to materialise

Country has great potential, analysts say, but its currency and banking problems will slow growth

Agence France-Presse in Naypyidaw
20 February 2012

Resource-rich Myanmar is seen as a hot new business frontier as reforms tempt investors, but with currency distortions and a banking system in tatters, analysts warn the economy could be slow to bloom.

International economic observers meeting in the capital, Naypyidaw, last week agreed there was almost a contagious faith in the country’s potential as it opened up after years of isolation.

Aside from its abundant natural resources, including oil and minerals, Myanmar has huge scope to develop its tourism industry after years of boycotts against the former ruling junta.

The country was once known as the “rice bowl of Asia” because of its agricultural riches. But economic mismanagement during nearly 50 years of direct military rule left it deeply impoverished.

Today, as a new government pushes through political reforms at a rate that has stunned observers, many hope it can take advantage of its opportunities and a strategic location between China and India.

“In many ways it is well-positioned to provide enormous investment opportunities,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz, of Columbia University, said at the meeting of analysts.

“The fact that there has been so little investment in the past means the potential returns are very high.”

The government, which remains dominated by former generals, took power last year and has since been hailed for reforms, such as the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

Western countries are now considering lifting economic sanctions, fuelling the huge growth in interest by outside business.

Myanmar’s government said last month that it planned to offer eight-year tax exemptions to foreign investors as Western companies rushed to build ties with the one-time international pariah.

But the International Monetary Fund said currency reform was a priority in the country, which currently has an informal exchange rate almost 100 times better than the official one.

It is a view shared by Stiglitz, who stresses the need for “not only the unification of the foreign exchange, but bringing down the foreign exchange rate, which is adversely affecting the competitiveness of their economy”.

Myanmar’s banking system is almost non-existent following a major crisis in 2003.

A recent report by the British risk-analysis group Maplecroft said Myanmar had the world’s worst legal system for doing business, retaining a position it has held for the past five years despite recent reforms.

“The political changes in a way have gone very well, and the story is relatively well-known now,” said Myanmese historian Dr Thant Myint-U. “But the economic story is still very murky.

“I think the government is trying to undertake a lot of very wide-ranging reforms, but how it’s actually going to come together, how it’s actually going to strengthen not weaken the political process, I think remains to be seen.”

The government of President Thein Sein appears to be pulling out all the stops to persuade the EU and US to lift sanctions.

All eyes are now on April 1 by-elections, which opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been allowed to contest after years of detention.

If the vote is perceived as free and fair, the country is likely to be rewarded by a further thawing of international relations - and more foreign direct investment.

“We have to make sure it’s responsible, that it is not just coming here for a very short term and then just run away with the profits,” said Myanmese economist Professor Aung Tun Thet. “But we really want serious partners.”

Myanmar is likely to receive support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which it has been a member since 1997.

Experts say the key to the country’s success is to prepare for long-term sustainability to prevent the economy from overheating.

Guanyu 道 said...

“The important thing is not to get carried away by the upswing,” said Ronald Findlay, a professor of economics at Columbia. Instead they should “damp things down a little bit before they get totally out of hand”.