Myanmar becomes a land of opportunity with political reform

Political reform offers the chance of big profits in the former pariah state. The first of a three-part series looks at the flood of investment into Yangon

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 April, 2013, 3:14am

"I waited for four years to get a mobile phone and now I can't live without it," says a thrilled taxi driver in Yangon, Myanmar.

Joseph bought his US$50 Chinese Huawei cellphone and a SIM card from a government-run telecom operator two months ago. The SIM card cost him another US$250, compared with just paying a monthly fee for the service in Hong Kong.

In a country where the GDP per capita is just US$1,100, that's a small fortune for many. President Thein Sein has pledged to bring down the price of SIM cards, with US$20 being mooted.

But compared with four years ago, the mobile service is already much more affordable. SIM cards in Myanmar used to cost a mind-boggling US$4,000 - effectively limiting mobile phones to the rich and privileged.

A SIM card is not the only thing in the realm of fantasy. Even investors who have seen the prices of property in Hong Kong soar in recent years could be forgiven for casting an envious eye at returns in Myanmar. The property market there has been inflated not only by local cash and hot money from mainland China but also speculators from Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Property prices are so out of reach in Yangon that an average citizen would need to work more than 100 years to afford a house in the former capital.

In reality, it is impossible for the average worker to buy a house in the city, home to six million people, because banks in Myanmar are banned from providing mortgages in the wake of a bad-debt crisis that hit its banking system some 10 years ago. Properties in Yangon are available to only two groups of people - the local super-rich sitting on piles of cash, mainly generated from the mining industry, or speculative investors from abroad.

"There is a lack of investment tools offered by the banks. Rich people can invest only in property or cars," says Ivan Pun, senior associate of corporate development at Yoma Strategic Holdings. Yoma, founded by Hong Kong-based Myanmese national Serge Pun, is one of the big property developers in Myanmar.

A 5,000 sq ft condominium at Kandawgyi Lake, the prime location in downtown Yangon, now goes for US$10 million, Pun says.

Even noted US investor Jim Rogers, who piled into China long before many of his peers, said at a conference in Singapore last year that if he could, he would put all of his money into Myanmar. Rogers, author of Adventure Capitalist and A Bull in China, says Myanmar is in much the same situation as China was in early 1979, when late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping kick-started economic reforms.

The price of land in Yangon has skyrocketed since a military regime started political reform two years ago.

One Yangon property agent, Ma Chaw Su, says the land price in the city is up to 20 times what it was three years ago.

A 40-foot by 60-foot plot of land in the Dagon industrial zone, on the outskirts of Yangon, costs from 20 million to 50 million kyat (US57,800 at the unofficial rate), compared with 900,000 to 1 million kyat two to three years ago.

The price would be up to 100 million kyat, or about US$115,600 for a plot located on the main road, she said.

Investors are banking on Myanmar's economy starting to catch up with its neighbours in Southeast Asia. The country has lagged behind as it coped with a decade of sanctions by the United States and the European Union, as well as ethnic conflicts at home.

Myanmar's GDP is less than 1 per cent of China's and less than 20 per cent of that in Malaysia, a country with barely half its population, according to an International Monetary Fund estimate which placed its GDP at US$45 billion in 2010-11.

The European Union suspended sanctions last June after Ang San Suu Kyi's reformist National League for Democracy was allowed to return to the political fray and take seats in parliament in 2011. It is widely thought that the United States will follow suit, especially after US President Barack Obama visited Yangon in November.

Japanese investors were among the first to return to Myanmar. A consortium led by Mitsubishi agreed to form a joint venture with the Yangon city government to invest US$12.3 billion in developing a special economic zone near the city in November.

The influx of foreign investors is creating a chronic shortage of hotel rooms. There are about 8,000 hotel rooms in Yangon, of which just 2,000 meet international standards. A room in the five-star Parkroyal Hotel costs US$260 a night, compared with just US$75 in 2011 and US$35 in 2007. "The occupancy rate is nearly 100 per cent in Yangon. Some hotels will charge a whole night for a late checkout," says Maung Maung Swe, vice-chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Federation.

More than one million tourists visited Myanmar last year and the number is expected to surge this year. In the first two months, visitor numbers rose 45 per cent year on year, said Maung Maung Swe. "There will be 1,500 new [hotel] rooms finished by the end of this year but we will have a shortfall of 2,500 rooms in 2014," he said.

Car prices have also rocketed in Myanmar. Almost all vehicles in Yangon, including taxis and buses, are second-hand from Japan and Korea. New cars are rare, as the import tax and other duties add up to 165 per cent of the cost of cars below 1,300cc, while for more powerful cars, the taxes are more than 200 per cent of the price.

In light of abundant liquidity in the country, second-hand cars are sought after, even though they cost several times what they would sell for in the developed world.

The number of second-hand-car showrooms in downtown Yangon has mushroomed since the government opened up the market two years ago. Thanks to the government's decision to cut the levy on imported cars from the previous 300 per cent and an increasing supply of second-hand cars, prices have come down from the sizzling levels of the past.

But the asking price for an 11-year-old Nissan X-Trail SUV, with 76,000 kilometres on the clock, is still a staggering US$250,000.