The last of the flying-geese economies

CLMV? No, it’s not a luxury goods house - though it is increasingly fashionable. It's the acronym used to describe one of the world's most dynamic economic zones - the collective of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. These ‘Mekong 4’ are the up and comers to watch in the world’s most dynamic region.

Why are these countries increasingly being looked at as a collective? It certainly isn’t due to an homogeneity of economic or political models.

"These ‘Mekong 4’ are the up and comers to watch in the world’s most dynamic region."
Grant Knuckey, ANZ CEO Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar

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In fact, these countries are notable for the differences in their institutional structures, ranging from heavily state-driven economic plus communist political models in Vietnam and Laos, to laissez-faire economic liberalism in Cambodia, and the emerging market reform model of Myanmar.

Why it does make sense to view these countries collectively is the fact that they are all in similar transitions from narrow primary economic bases to industralised economies, accompanied in all cases by rapid reform.

In macro-economic terms, they represent the last of the ‘flying geese’, to quote the economic thesis that uses the analogy of geese flying in a V-shaped formation, to describe the cascading process of industrialisation in Asia.

This started with Japan in the 1950s and 60s, moving through Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore in the 1970s and 80s, and then on to South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand in the 1990s, joined most notably by China over the 2000s. The last group of Asian nations to take part in this industrialisation process is the CLMV bloc.

There are slight differences in relative positions on the industrialisation curve, with Vietnam at the helm and Myanmar only recently joining - but in an accelerated manner. However, the same process is clear in all these countries concurrently and it is accompanied by rapid economic growth.

Key drivers

What’s driving this? In terms of macro forces, the key one is demographics. CLMV is a very young economic bloc, where more than 50 per cent of people are below the age of 30.

This means that the ‘support ratio’ - the number of workers supporting every consumer - is on an upward trajectory for many years to come. This underpins continuing increases in consumption and growth. Contrast that with a country like Japan, where the support ratio peaked in the early 1990's - followed by the lost decades of growth.

Industrialisation itself is being fed by regional supply chain dynamics. Labour cost substitution, geo-politics and risk diversification have been feeding ‘China +1’ and ‘Thailand + 1’ strategies for global manufacturers.

In both cases, the proximity and cost competitiveness of the CLMV nations has made them a significant recipient of this redirected manufacturing investment. Take, for example, the significant investment of Korean electronics in Vietnam and of Japanese manufacturers in Cambodia.

This process is being accelerated and bolstered by the upcoming ASEAN Economic Community, due to launch at the end of 2015. This new economic bloc will drive a freer flow of the factors of production, along with regulatory and trade harmonisation.

This is expected to create a virtuous cycle of increasing intra-regional trade and investment, although it remains to be seen whether there will be clear winners and losers within the bloc.

All of this is taking shape in the midst of rapid and far-reaching domestic reform in each of the CLMV economies.

The catalysts and accelerants for this reform differ to some degree in each country. In Myanmar it is being pulled along by the opening up of the economy to trade and investment after decades of isolation (though it is fair to say economic reform is proving bolder than political reform).

In Cambodia, a driver is the existentialist threat to the ruling party, revealed by the surprise results of the 2013 elections. In Vietnam, it is about cleaning up the inefficiencies of state-dominated enterprise.

The outcomes of all of these forces are clear: rising incomes, rapid increases in consumption and increased export orientation. These are underpinning consistently strong economic growth in the region of 5 to 7 per cent across all of the CLMV.

Getting involved

So what are the main opportunities for businesses from outside the CLMV, particularly from Australia and NZ, to take part in this growth story? There are some clear areas of focus.

• Agricultural modernisation

These countries have decidedly low-tech agri sectors that can support significant increases in yield and quality from the application of best-practice methods in irrigation, genetics and logistics.

An interesting example of what can be done is the Australian joint-venture company which is about to launch one of the largest slaughterhouses in the world in Cambodia, supplied with live cattle from none other than Australia, and aiming for meat exports to key markets such as China.

• Energy

The rapid growth of the CLMV is leading to electricity supply deficits in all countries other than Laos (which touts itself as 'the battery of Asia' due to its portfolio of hydro-power generation). At the same time there are untapped reserves of oil and gas, particularly in Myanmar.

• Infrastructure

The developing supply-chains are highlighting the dearth of quality road/rail/port infrastructure in the CLMV, which will underpin billions of dollars of investment and related contracts over the next five years

Then there is consumption growth, which can create an opportunity for a myriad of exporters of both goods and services from outside the CLMV region.

An interesting recent example is provided by the arrival of the first '21st-century shopping mall in Cambodia. This investment, by Japanese operator Aeon, has provided opportunities for not just a slew of Japanese retailers but also for a Thai cinema operator and an Australian car-parking company, amongst others.

The message for business outside the region is this - take a closer look at this dynamic cluster of countries, as it goes through a rapid and dramatic transformation that will create opportunities for business from manufacture to consumption. Keep an eye on CLMV - it will be the fashion!

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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