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For Vietnam, lingerie making is better than speculation
  • | | December 07, 2009 12:19 PM

Yet I met no shortage of investors willing to gamble on Vietnam and that is a good thing. Bubbles and uncertainty aside, don't lose sight of Vietnam's potential - including joining Brazil, Russia, India and China as one of Goldman Sachs' BRIC nations.

To me, Vietnam is a long-term buy. The Vietnamese will be rich someday, an argument you can't make about many emerging nations. The only question is whether it takes 10 years or 20 years, and whether you are in on the dynamic.

That is not the story one reads in the international media. There, it is a tale of woe, missed opportunities and another 1997-like financial crisis. That also goes for how investors' views have evolved - or devolved.

Take Mark Mobius, Templeton Asset Management's chairman. In December last year, he said: "If you look at Vietnam, the market has really come down substantially, and it looks very, very interesting."

Recently he said that, among Asian stock markets, "the biggest risk now is Vietnam".

Such worries are overdone, even with stocks up almost 60 percent this year. Recent volatility is worrying those who flocked to Vietnam in recent years. Those capital inflows turned the $91 billion (R665.1bn) economy into hot-money central. Its relatively open financial system and flexible currency made Vietnam a hotbed of speculation.

Government policies have not helped. Bad infrastructure is limiting growth, and alleged efforts to block networking site Facebook are counterproductive.

Yet 30 minutes with officials like Nguyen Huu Tu restores one's faith that the government gets it. He is anything but shy about listing Vietnam's challenges.

"Vietnam has faced the bubble threat," Tu says. He points out that the solution is creating a more balanced economy, deeper and more liquid debt markets and increased corporate transparency. Far from panicking, he sees Vietnam's latest bout with capital flight as an opportunity to learn and recalibrate policies to make the economy more predictable.

It is no small thing that Vietnam has been named by Goldman among the 11 contenders for the next wave of BRICs. In a world of economic gloom, Vietnam is holding its own. It will probably grow well above 5 percent this year.

It is better to think of Vietnam not as hot-money central but lingerie central, due to its key role in manufacturing women's underwear for companies like Victoria's Secret and Wacoal.

Textile and apparel jobs are helping to raise Vietnam's living standards. Such industries will thrive only if the macro story remains intact. That will require big tweaks to the micro-economy. It is about keeping bubbles and hot-money flows from derailing the economy's broader evolution.

Success will win Goldman's blessing, bestowing a seal of approval that could pay huge dividends. Wall Street's premier securities firm has bought stakes in some companies, yet it has not opened an office in the country. Of course, given Goldman's public relations problems, some Vietnamese may have reservations about it hanging a shingle in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. The thing about Vietnam is it likes to pursue globalisation at its own pace.

Given Vietnam's level of development, adding manufacturing jobs is more important. It provides a base from which Vietnam can move up the value chain.

Developing the financial sector is vital. It is just better right now to be a hotbed of lingerie production than speculation. Even Goldman might agree.