The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (July 25, 2015)

By Simon Lewis 25 July 2015

Pun and Associates, Max Myanmar Top Corporate Transparency Report

Serge Pun and Associates has topped the list of Burma’s most transparent companies, according to a Myanmar Center for Responsible Business (MCRB) report released this week.

The second annual   ‘Transparency in Myanmar Enterprises’ report—which evaluates the corporate websites of the country’s top 100 companies by revenue for organizational transparency, anti-corruption commitments, grievance procedures and the publication of financial reports—lauded improvements across some of Burma’s top firms, with the banking and real estate empire of Serge Pun rocketing to first from ninth place last year.

In second place was the Max Myanmar group of companies, whose interests stretch across petrochemicals, agriculture, construction and hotels. Max Myanmar chairman Zaw Zaw remains on the US Treasury’s sanctions list, which in 2013 blocked the company’s efforts to list on the Singapore Stock Exchange.

The MCRB report noted that most of the companies surveyed either published little data online or did not have any web presence at all. Vicky Bowman, the center’s director, called on the country’s top firms to increase public trust by voluntarily disclosing more information about their activities.

“Although there is not yet a regulatory requirement on large Myanmar companies to report non-financial information, voluntary disclosure will encourage better understanding of and trust in business,” she said. “We also hope the local media and Myanmar civil society groups will study the public commitments that these companies do make, and hold them to account to deliver on them.”

Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Economic Corporation, two military-owned firms with sprawling interests in banking, alcoholic beverages, transport, mining, agriculture and manufacturing, were among those firms at the lower end of the transparency report.

China Border Crackdown Spurs Local Rice Glut

China’s continuing crackdown on the cross-border rice trade has led to a surge in Burma’s stockpiles of the staple, leading to concerns that local farmers will again be subject to a dramatic drop in rice prices.

Industry website Oryza reports that nearly 60 rice traders have been arrested on the other side of the border for tax evasion, as the Chinese government clamps down on black market trade.

In the last nine months of 2014,  two-thirds of Burma’s total rice exports—or around 700,000 tons—were to China, at the time considered illegal by the latter country because of a lack of agreement on standards and certifications.

The tightening of import restrictions last year spurred a sharp slump in prices toward the end of 2014, Myanmar Rice Federation chairman Chit Khaing told The Irrawaddy.

As Burma’s rice traders seek to diversify exports with an eye to the European market other Southeast Asian countries, official trade to China reportedly resumed in May with a 100,000 ton shipment.

Oryza reported that prices had so far remained firm, with Burmese traders expecting demand to pick up at the end of the monsoon season.

Australian Miners Flag Ramp-Up After Offshore Commitments

A bilateral business group says that Australia’s big miners are enthusiastic about the prospect of doing business in Burma, following a boost in investor confidence with the success of oil and gas auctions off the coast of Arakan State.

The   Australian Associated Press reported that oil and gas giant Woodside’s acquisition of two offshore blocks for exploration—part of an overall $3.6 billion invested in the Arakan Bay in the past year—had paved the way for further investments in the country’s extractive industries in Australian miners.

The Sydney-based Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce told AAP that Australian companies would be likely to assume an auxiliary role in future Burmese mining ventures in a country markedly lacking in-country expertise in the sector.

“The miners have to have people, people have to eat, be transported and so on. There’s no reason that Australians should not be involved in those areas,” Glen Robinson, the organization’s chairman, told AAP.

The Australian economy’s decade-long mining boom has waned in recent years, with coal and iron ore prices retreating from record highs as global demand weakens, and the country’s flagship mining and offshore drilling projects began the switch from investment to production.

Many of Australia’s bigger mining concerns have consequently begun looking to Asia and Africa for new investment opportunities,  according to the Financial Times.

Australian mining firm Eumeralla Resources has already partnered with a local company to  explore a 400 square kilometer area in the hills of Karenni State. Concerns have been raised about the impact of the project on the environment and local community, with fears that any exploratory activity in areas claimed by the Karenni National Progressive Party could restart a conflict halted in 2012 by a tenuous ceasefire.

The Irrawaddy reported in May that the Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce was  involved in a dispute with a locally registered group also purporting to represent Australian business interests in the country.

The Burmese government only permits the existence of one business representative group from each country. Michael Phin, the executive director of the Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce, told The Irrawaddy at the time that the organization had yet to register with the Burmese government.

Dagon City Halt Threatens Developer Confidence: WSJ

The Wall Street Journal claims that the Union government’s decision to halt five projects near Shwedagon Pagoda   is likely to inflame concerns over foreign investment in Burma’s burgeoning property market.

Following a half-year freeze on construction, Naypyidaw responded to a rising tide of criticism directed against the projects from lawmakers, architects, heritage experts and the Buddhist clergy. Various elements of civil society opposed the impact of some of the projects on sightlines to the famed pagoda and worried that development could damage the water table underneath Singuttara Hill, potentially damaging Shwedagon’s foundations.

The projects included Dagon City 1, a joint venture between local firm Thukha Yadanar and the Hong Kong-based international consortium Marga Landmark. The latter is helmed by outspoken chairman Stephen Suen, whose long pedigree in international finance included a spell in Australia’s Macquarie Bank, and who as recently as   February was confident that the project would proceed according to the planning permissions granted by the Myanmar Investment Commission.

The WSJ quoted Erin Murphy, head of a Washington-based firm providing advisory services for firms looking to invest in Burma, who claimed that scrapping Dagon City 1 might be considered “a bridge too far” for investors worried about entering an emerging market during a time of rapid political change.

Observers closer to home, however, say that any sovereign risk in the real estate sector is dwarfed by the potential consequences of the property market’s persistent boom, with the cost of commercial tenancies in Rangoon still rivaling those of Hong Kong and Singapore and rampant speculation in the commercial capital’s growth areas.

Big Banks Set to Advise on Burma Credit Rating

The financial services multinationals Citigroup and Standard Chartered are tipped to assist in determining Burma’s first ever credit rating, according to sources close to the government.

Reuters has reported that the two firms will   this month be given a mandate to assist the Burmese government on how to attain an evaluation from one of the big three credit rating agencies, which will allow the country to market government bonds to foreign investors.

Any initial rating is likely to score Burmese bonds several rungs below “investment grade”, leaving the field open for speculative investors seeking higher returns for an added modicum of risk.

Credit ratings will also be tempered by a sharp rise in inflation, forecast by the Asian Development Bank to hit 8.4 percent in the current financial year—just above projected GDP growth of 8.3 percent.

Recent interventions by the Central Bank of Myanmar, in an ultimately futile attempt to halt the depreciation of the kyat, are also likely to be viewed unfavorably by the rating agencies.

If successful, the attempt to achieve a credit rating is tipped to be used by the Central Bank of Myanmar to help bridge the country’s current account deficit, which has blown out substantially in the last five years as a result of a widening trade deficit and is forecast by the ADB to remain above 6 percent of GDP in the 2015-16 financial year.