The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (September 20, 2014)

By William Boot 20 September 2014

US Investment in Burma Remains Modest Since Sanctions Were Lifted

Investment from the United States since Washington lifted economic sanctions in 2012 remains small at US$243 million, a report said.

The figure is no higher than US investment recorded in 2001, according to Naypyidaw’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) quoted by Eleven Media.

However, the Wall Street Journal quoted the US Department of State recently saying “about US$612 million” had been invested since sanctions were first eased.

Even this higher figure is small compared with US$14 billion from China, US$10 billion from Thailand and US$4.7 billion from Singapore, the Journal said.

One reason for the small official US figure is that many American firms are investing in Burma via their subsidiaries in other Asian countries, said DICA.

But earlier this month the Journal reported that despite US government encouragement, American businesses investment is “hindered by the legacy of sanctions”.

“Few US banks are willing to transfer money into or out of the country. And even money transfers through a third country like Singapore often get blocked by US firms if Myanmar [Burma] appears in a company name,” Journal said.

Thai Gas Explorer PTTEP Invests More in Burma, but Few Jobs Created

Thailand’s state oil and gas giant PTT Exploration & Production Company said it will spend US$3.3 billion in Burma in the five years up to the end of 2018.

The investment is 20 percent of the Bangkok-based company’s overall international capital spending for the period, chief executive Tevin Vongvanich announced.

The investment will be pumped into seven exploration projects, including three onshore blocks recently awarded to PTTEP, The Nation newspaper in Bangkok reported.

PTTEP this month celebrated 25 years of operations in Burma. However, the firm’s high-tech activities and investment have not created many Burmese jobs—250 in total, according to The Nation.

Most of PTTEP’s investment to date has gone into offshore natural gas projects, the latest being the Zawtika field in the Gulf of Martaban.

The Zawtika field began producing gas this year. Under the terms of a contract signed with the former Naypyidaw military regime, 80 percent of the gas from the field will go to Thailand.

Thailand now imports about 25 percent of its annual gas consumption from Burma, and this is rising as Thai domestic production slowly declines, said industry analysts.

Proven reserves in the field are at least 1.76 trillion cubic feet— 50 billion cubic meters—and this is expected to grow with new exploratory drilling, said Asia Oil & Gas Monitor magazine.

Naypyidaw Policies ‘Not Creating Enough Jobs,’ Business Leader Says

Burma is failing to attract the level of high job creation businesses needed to put the country firmly on the road to equitable economic growth, a leading Burmese businessman said.

The number of jobs created by incoming investors over the last two years had “fallen short of the desired results”, Serge Pun told an investment forum in Naypyidaw this week, The Myanmar Times reported.

Government efforts to attract foreign direct investment needed to focus on manufacturers who would establish high employment factories, he said.

“Serge Pun said it should be possible to attract 1,000 factories employing 1,000 people each for a total of 1 million jobs, noting Bangladesh has 3,600 such factories and southern China has 32,000,” the Times said.

“Technicians and management employees can be found through job fairs in places like Singapore, but employment for lower-level workers is needed, he said.”

Serge Pun heads Yoma Strategic Holdings which has interests in real estate, agriculture, vehicles and tourism, as well as telecommunications.

The forum also heard a call from International Finance Corporation Vice President for Asia Pacific Karin Finkelston for more “inclusivity of growth” in Burma by encouraging job creation outside the main cities.

Burma’s ‘Shrunken Population’ is Bad News for Consumer Businesses

The recent census showing Burma’s population to be 10 million less than previously believed could deter consumer-orientated businesses from investing in the country, a report said.

“The downward revision of nearly 10 million people is a significant development. Chiefly, the revision will affect consumer-oriented firms looking to move into or expand operations in [Burma], as nearly 20 percent of their target population has seemingly vanished overnight,” Business Monitor International (BMI) said.

The British risk assessor also said the census illustrated the “country’s statistical shortcomings” for companies planning to invest in Burma, making it difficult to estimate operations.

The census showed that Burma’s population is 51.4 million compared with previous estimates under the former military regime of 61 million, BMI said.

40% Boost in Tourist Arrivals Aids Target of 3 Million Visitors This Year

Burma is on target to reach 3 million tourist visits this year, travel trade magazine TTR Weekly said.

The target has been boosted by a 40-percent increase in visitors between April and August compared with the same period of 2013, it quoted Tourism Minister Htay Aung saying.

“If this trend continues the number of tourist arrivals could surpass 3 million by the end of the year,” the minister said.

Htay Aung admitted, though, that the new visa system via the Internet intended to speed up applications was experiencing some technical problems since its introduction at the beginning of this month.

“The main disadvantage is that it takes a week to gain approval for the e-visa. Also, airlines are reluctant to accept e-visas believing there is a chance immigration officials could turn down entry at the airport and they would have to repatriate the traveller,” TTR Weekly said.