Understanding Vietnam: The rising star


Vietnam is coming of age. Strong economic fundamentals and good policies should ensure tremendous long-term prospects for the economy.
Irvin Seah28 May 2019
  • Global investors have been lining up to be a part of the Vietnam narrative
  • The ongoing trade war between China and the US has cast a spotlight on Vietnam’s potential
  • Strong FDI from China and Hong Kong recently may mark the beginning of a new trend
  • Vietnam has the potential to sustain GDP growth rate of about 6-6.5% in the medium term
  • At this pace, the Vietnam economy will be bigger than the size of the Singapore economy in ten years
Photo credit: AFP Photo


Emerging Vietnam

Vietnam recorded a remarkable GDP growth of 7.1% in 2018. This makes it the second fastest amongst Asian economies (7.2%) However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for this emerging Asian economy in recent years.

Just about a decade ago, Vietnam was struggling with exceptionally high inflation (up to 28%), weak growth, drastic devaluation of the VND, and risk of a balance of payment crisis. Rapid liberalization post WTO accession, the inability to manage domestic imbalances, as well as an over-reliance on the US export market amid the global financial crisis were some of the key reasons for the economic turmoil during that time. Economic stability only started to take hold from mid-2012 onwards, and that came only after some extreme monetary tightening measures were deployed.


The experience from the economic tumult sowed the seed for Vietnam’s economic transformation. Resolution 11 was passed in early 2012 to focus on economic stability while the Socio-Economic Development Plan (SEDP, 2011-2015) that focused on reforms in the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the financial sector and public investment, was adopted in the National Assembly in November the same year.

Since then, the economic performance has been encouraging. Growth has averaged 6.4% in the past three years while inflation has been stable, at about 3.2% in the same period. What is perhaps most interesting is that beyond the headline figures, Vietnam is beginning to outperform many regional peers in several other aspects.

More importantly, policymakers are now focusing on longer term economic stability and sustainability, rather than the pace of growth per se. Domestic reform, albeit tepid, has been ongoing. The long-term prospects of this economy are positive, and in terms of the size of the economy (i.e., real GDP), Vietnam is expected to join the ranks of some of the relatively more developed economies in the region in the coming decade.

Investing into the future

One key policy focus is to build the capacity for longer term growth. This entails a deliberate effort to encourage investment and improve infrastructure. Vietnam is one of the top recipients of FDI in the region. It received about USD 14.1bn worth of FDI in 2017 (6.3% of nominal GDP), the third highest in ASEAN (Table 1). Key advantages offered by Vietnam would include its highly integrated and dedicated industrial / economic zones, its strategic location in the middle of regional supply chain, close proximity to China, attractive tax concessions and low corporate tax rate, and a competitive workforce.


Key foreign investors in Vietnam are Japan (18.6%), Korea (10.3%), Singapore (4.0%), China (3.4%) and Hong Kong (3.2%) (Table 2). The scope of investment is also very diverse, from real estate, infrastructure, banking, telecommunication, and of course, manufacturing. Among the sectors, manufacturing is the main draw for investors, particularly in electronics.

The rise of Vietnam’s electronics cluster is due in part to the structural shift in regional elec¬tronics supply chain. Vietnam has captured market share from many of its regional peers. In a process seen over and over in Asia, earlier play¬ers saw incomes and wages rise, opening the door for lower cost pro¬ducers. Vietnam is the latest new kid on the block.



Investment into electronics is growing rapidly, and high-tech electronics players have established presence in Vietnam in recent years. Samsung, Intel, LG, Panasonic and Microsoft are among the global tech giants that have expanded in the country, marking a shift away from China. This trend is likely to persist, and the effect thus far has been apparent.

In less than a decade, Vietnam has leapfrogged ahead of some of the more established electronics manufacturing hubs to become the second largest electronics exporter within ASEAN, just marginally behind Malaysia (Chart 3). Indeed, at the current pace of growth, it will not come as a surprise if Vietnam becomes the top electronics manufacturer in ASEAN in the coming years.



To support the strong inflows of FDI, Vietnam is investing heavily into infrastructure. While many regional peers are also doing the same, Vietnam is doing that in a much bigger way, relative to the size of the economy. As a share of GDP, Vietnam’s infrastructure investment dwarfs many of the regional peers. According to ADB, Vietnam’s infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP was 5.8% in 2017, significantly more than many of its ASEAN neighbours (Chart 4). The investment is focused on areas such as economic zones, industrial parks and clusters, hi-tech parks and agri-tech zones. The impetus in infrastructure development thus provides Vietnam the capacity to support longer term expansion of its economy, as well as to continue to attract more FDI flows.

Focusing on human capital

Vietnam has a relatively conducive demographic profile as well. While its population is slightly more matured compared to some of the regional peers, mainly due to the post war baby boomers reaching middle-age, it remains favorable relative to some of the more developed economies in the region such as Singapore, Thailand and China. Median age is about 30 years old while old age dependency ratio stands at 9.6 (ratio of person aged 65+ per 100 persons aged 15-64) in 2015 (Chart 6).



The quality of human capital is just as important in determining the longer-term growth prospects of an economy. In this regard, Vietnam has outperformed many of her ASEAN neighbours. The World Bank Human Capital Index ranks Vietnam second in ASEAN and comparable to China (Chart 7). Besides having a hardworking labour force, the favorable ranking is likely a result of continued investment into education. For the past two decades, the government has consistently allocated about 20% of its total expenditure to education, which is relatively high by global standards.



That has paid off in terms of productivity of the workforce. Strong FDI flows into technology in recent years have augmented domestic factors, resulting in higher labour productivity growth. Vietnam’s productivity growth has not only improved in recent years (averaging 5.7% between 2015-17) but is also outpacing many of the regional economies, and second only to China (Chart 8). Indeed, ensuring productivity gains is crucial in sustaining long term economic growth, especially when Vietnam’s population will continue to age.



Yet, despite the high productivity growth, Vietnam has one of the most competitive wage costs in the region (Chart 9). Average monthly wages in Vietnam is just about one-third of that in China. Such cost competitiveness is one of the key reasons why Vietnam is steadily capturing more of the regional electronics supply chain and will likely be one of the main beneficiaries of the ongoing trade disputes between the US and China.



Beneficiary of the trade war

Vietnam is in a favorable position to benefit from the ongoing trade disputes between the US and China. The economy is strategically plugged into the regional manufacturing supply chain. Strong FDI flows and technological transfers over the years have helped to establish Vietnam’s manufacturing capability. In terms of connectivity, it has about 44 sea ports with a total capacity of about 500mn tonnes/annum, and has direct access to the South China Sea, an important sea route whereby about 20% of the world’s maritime trade will flow through. Vietnam also has an extensive network of free trade agreements (FTA). It is an active member of several multilateral trade agreements (e.g., AFTA, AEC, CP-TPP, RCEP, ASEAN-China, ASEAN-Japan), and it has also secured several high-quality bilateral trade agreements with some of its key trading partners including Japan and Korea.

Moreover, after years of rapid growth, wages in China are now more than 3 times higher than in Vietnam. This has led to margin compression, forcing manufacturers to relocate their production bases. Beyond the cost advantage, geography plays a role. Vietnam’s proximity to Chi¬na makes it easier for companies that are currently based in China to integrate into existing supply chains. A growing middle class supporting domestic demand has further strengthened Vietnam’s overall attractiveness for global manufacturers, particularly against the backdrop of the ongoing trade disputes between the US and China.



Indeed, a very recent phenomenon is that FDI flows from China has been significantly stronger than usual. In the first four months of this year, FDI from China registered USD 1.3bn (Chart 10). This has outstripped investment from all the other major investors year-to-date, as well as the same period last year. In fact, it is by no coincidence that China’s total direct investment into Vietnam from January to April this year alone has already surpassed her total investment in Vietnam for the whole of last year. We reckon that this could be an early sign of investment diversification out of China and into regional markets such as Vietnam. Indeed, one can reasonably assume that such phenomenon could accelerate in the coming quarters if the bilateral and trade relationship between the US and China continues to worsen.

Vietnam’s GDP could be bigger than Singapore’s by 2029

Considering the domestic fundamentals and the dynamics in the external environment, we attempt to project the medium-term potential growth of the economy. Judging from the potentially strong investment flows, we reckon that productivity growth in Vietnam could average between 5.5% in the coming years. Juxtaposed with a working age population growth rate of about 1% in the near term and gradually tapering off to 0.5% against the backdrop of the gradual aging of the post-war baby boomers, we reckon that Vietnam has the potential to achieve a growth pace of about 6.0-6.5% over the next ten years.

To put things in a different perspective, it will be interesting to compare Vietnam’s growth with some of the regional peers. If Vietnam is about to sustain a growth pace of about 6-6.5% in the near term, and that economies in the region continue to grow at their medium term potential growth rate (e.g., Singapore at 2.5%, Thailand at 4%, Indonesia at 5% etc), the pecking order in the region in terms of the size of the economy (real GDP) will change.

At present, the size of the Vietnam economy is about USD 224bn, or about 69% of the Singapore economy (USD 324bn), which is also the third largest in the region behind Indonesia and Thailand. If Vietnam is able to maintain the growth pace of about 6-6.5% in the coming years, and that Singapore continues to grow at a matured pace of about 2.5%, then the real GDP of these two economies will intersect by 2029.

Simply put, the Vietnam economy will be bigger than the size of the Singapore economy in ten years’ time. And this implies tremendous growth opportunities for companies and investors looking to get a slice of the action.


Granted it will not exactly be “picture perfect” for Vietnam as a slew of domestic issues need to be resolved. For example, SOE reform has been tepid while financial sector liberalisation has been slower than expected, often dampened by concerns regarding non-performing loans (NPLs). Ambiguous domestic regulations and poor corporate governance are some of the pain-points confronting foreign investors. Yet, these are some of the common challenges associated with any emerging economies, and Vietnam is no exception.

What is certain is that policy direction is heading the right way, and underlying fundamentals within the economy are conducive. Amid the uncertainties in the global economy, companies and investors would have to start focusing more on this “rising star” to leverage on its growth prospects. Indeed, long term prospects of the economy, relative to the region, are exceptionally positive.


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Irvin Seah

Economist - Singapore, Malaysia & Vietnam
irvinseah@dbs.com
 

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