Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Doubts over Italian-Thai's Myanmar plans may scare off ADB

The Asian Development Bank will find it hard to lend money for Italian-Thai Development's US$8.6-billion (Bt267-billion) plan to build a deep-sea port and industrial estate in Myanmar, Craig Steffensen, its Thailand country director, said yesterday.

"If you look at their plans, with golf courses and hotels and steel mills and refineries, it scared a lot of people," Steffensen, who also oversees Myanmar for the ADB, said in an interview with Bloomberg.

"It'd make it very difficult for a group like ADB to ever get involved in a project like that given the concerns of everyone, including ourselves, about how this project should move forward."

Although it is predicting fast growth in Myanmar's gross domestic product - 6 per cent this year and 6.3 per cent in 2013 - the bank believes the country is unlikely to catch up with Thailand or Vietnam in the next decade because it is in an early stage of development.

For Thailand, the ADB forecasts GDP expansion at 5.5 per cent for both this and next year.

Myanmar's economic prospects are bolstered by recent political reforms and projected increases in gas exports, according to an ADB report released yesterday.

"Myanmar is making a lot of the right moves to revitalise its economy, laying a foundation for further foreign investment and commodity exports with currency changes, land reforms and tax incentives," Steffensen said.

The possible easing of economic sanctions by Europe and the United States would lead to even higher levels of trade and investment, he said.

The ADB report said the move to a managed float of the kyat, which took effect on April 1, was a promising reform towards exchange-rate unification and transparency. This measure will expose inefficiencies in state enterprises that dominate parts of the economy. However, it is necessary that the country undertake further reforms, including transparent subsidies and possibly privatisation.

As hotels in Myanmar and flights in and out of the country are fully booked now, income from tourism is expected to rise further, Steffensen said.

Tourist arrivals last year rose by 26 per cent to about 300,000 with combined spending of $300 million. Gas exports increased by nearly 15 per cent to an estimated $3 billion.

New pipelines from Myanmar linking with China and Thailand will increase gas exports.

Inflation in Myanmar is expected to be quite high, at 6.2 per cent this year and 6.3 per cent in 2013.

Despite the country's strong growth prospects, it is starting far behind Thailand or Vietnam.

"The gap of development is huge. Don't forget that Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world," he said.

The ADB estimates that per capita income in Myanmar is only $715 per year. Its population is estimated at about 60 million, of whom 26 per cent are poor. Poverty levels are much higher in some regions, such as 70 per cent in Chin State.

Only 25 per cent enjoy access to electricity. Human resources are not good. Myanmar's ranking on the United Nations Human Development Index is near the bottom of the list, at 149 out of 187 countries, according to the ADB report.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said her country's economic development will surpass other Asean members' in 10 years.

Thailand will see stable growth at 5.5 per cent until next year, thanks to post-flood reconstruction activities by both the private and public sectors, said Luxmon Attapich, the ADB's senior economist for Thailand. Downside risks for the economy are the euro-zone crisis, higher oil prices and the threat of natural disasters - floods or drought.

The ADB does not include political factors in making Thailand's economic projections, she sad.