Indochinese countries are showing promising signs of growth and renewed appeal to investors, writes Peta Tomlinson
On the face of it, there are some fairly healthy numbers coming out of Indochina. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar - the "late bloomers" of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). They are finally attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), even if they did have much ground to make up compared to their more-developed neighbours.
It's also happening faster. According to the Japan Research Institute, actual GDP growth in these four countries' economies has been outpacing the early-developing Asean members in recent years, and "are expected to maintain this pace over the next five years". Further, foreign invested development of infrastructure is "all the more feasible" now in Indochina, where local wages remain significantly lower than even in China, the institute notes.
Savills research confirms these trends. Based on half-year 2013 data, Cambodia achieved GDP growth of 7 per cent and 15.2 per cent FDI growth, Laos has 8.4 per cent GDP growth and 30 per cent FDI growth, Vietnam had 5 per cent GDP growth and 11.6 per cent FDI growth, and Myanmar had 5.5 per cent GDP growth and 41 per cent FDI growth.
However, there are stories behind the numbers - some of these markets are "very fragile", says Troy Griffiths, deputy managing director at Savills Vietnam. For example, Laos has seemingly performed very well, reaching a "high" of 12 per cent GDP at the peak before scaling back. Griffiths describes Laos as "a very small, shallow, fragile economy", which he believes will not meet GDP forecasts in the medium term.
"In Laos, the opportunity is very limited," he says. "The others [Indochina markets] are the ones we are excited about. Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar are all countries that have great structural elements."
Tim Horton, general manager of Cushman & Wakefield Vietnam, provides some background. The Indochina region, he says, was "once the darling of Southeast Asia, with planeload after planeload of new arrivals coming to visit". Land prices and rents "went through the roof"; business hotels' average daily rates and occupancy reached record levels; "and skylines were full of cranes as new projects, which had been dormant, suddenly became viable with the increase in interest from all corners of Asia and the globe".
As insulated as each of these countries was against any real form of instability, the region was not well-prepared for the contraction of interest brought on by the global financial crisis (GFC), Horton says. "Although Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not primarily affected from the GFC, a great deal of the investors had been."
Vietnam, having seen "some very aggressive real estate cycles" over the past decade, experienced its toughest time in the past two to three years, according to Horton. Interest rates for construction funding tightened, and the market for mid-end housing - originally developed for speculation buyers - dried up on the back of too much new supply.
Cambodia was "even more severely affected in 2009", when a large number of investors and developers, particularly those from Korea, had to either withdraw or put their projects on the market. Horton says: "There had been very high hopes - and some very unrealistic projects proposed that would not be out of place in far more developed markets."
Gradually, there has been a re-emergence in some sectors, notably the serviced apartment market and smaller boutique offices in Cambodia, and "a real appetite" for group-level investment activity in Vietnam, coming from Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Griffiths' excitement for the region is multipronged. Indochina in general has a large, young working-age population, a very high urbanisation rate and domestic occupancy of around four persons per household. "Those three factors alone are fantastic, and not to be found anywhere else in the world in such a localised area," he says. "This means really good prospects for residential development and economic growth in the future."
There's also a concerted effort to build a strong economic community via the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, Asean initiatives and WTO membership, all aiming to achieve a cross-border free flow of resources and people as early as next year.
Political tensions elsewhere in the region are also benefiting Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, Griffiths says, especially as Japanese investors turn away from China. Apart from investing in industry, Japanese companies are now building for domestic consumption, and export in Vietnam - "looking for that middle-income boost that Vietnam will get at some stage".
Cambodia and Vietnam have had oversupply in the residential sector, and Griffiths expects that will continue for some time. However, tightened monetary policies have worked in bringing interest rates down from 23 per cent to about 8 per cent, though more reforms are needed, particularly in the banking sector, he says.
Horton points to the region's ups and downs. Laos is driven by the tourism dollar "and will continue to be sluggish given the very relaxed lifestyle of the country", whereas Myanmar is "the newest and hottest destination in the region".
"We have seen a large number of groups that had visited Indochina about five years ago all making another trip as they start to see value on the back of decreased land pricing and relative political stability," he says.
In Vietnam, various macro-fundamentals all indicate opportunity. The residential market has seen stability in low-end/affordable housing demand, and in the luxury and super-high-end market for projects in the right locations with high levels of design, according to Horton.
Cambodia has experienced a continual increase in supply across all sectors, especially the serviced apartment market favoured by expatriates, he says. "The residential market has seen some activity on the back of Japanese and Chinese investors looking to take the opportunity, while market conditions are still soft and buy apartments off the plan."
Still, Cushman & Wakefield suspects that investors remain wary of the Indochina market - they've seen the tough times and are more aware of the pitfalls and market determinants.
Yet, Horton believes they have begun to feel more comfortable with the idea of Indochina's ability to perform - especially given the improving infrastructure and the competitive advantage gained by low labour costs.
Griffiths agrees. "Part of our optimism is the growth of Southeast Asia as a region." There is no reason why Indochinese countries should not be part of it, he says.
With apartment prices starting at US$100,000 (in Cambodia), could this even be the last frontier of affordable property investment? "These ones have late-bloomed, and therefore will have a greater opportunity for the future. It's almost invariable - it's going to happen, just a matter of how long it takes," Griffiths says.
What you can buy for US$145,000
A two-bedroom apartment at Riviera Point, an 18-tower waterfront condominium development on the Ca Cam River in District 7 of Ho Chi Minh City. The project is being developed jointly by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore's Keppel Land, and a local developer.
What you can buy for US$450,000
A top-of-the-range, three-bedroom apartment at Xi Riverview Palace in District 2 of Ho Chi Minh City. One of the few grade A apartment projects in the city, it comprises 270 homes over three towers, with four units per floor.