By Roberto Herrera-Lim
It's easy to disparage Vietnam, whose reputation as the poster child for the economic potential of frontier market countries has taken a beating in recent years. Inflation is a persistent threat, growth is slowing, and the country's banks and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are struggling with a potentially destabilizing level of bad debts. And to top it all off, Vietnam's political leaders are fighting among themselves when the situation calls for firm action. As a result, foreign investors are left scratching their heads and wondering if Vietnam will be able to build the institutions and capabilities needed to move into the ranks of the emerging market nations.
Vietnam's institutions were not prepared for strong growth. That much is clear from the crisis that has played out over the past few years during which Vietnam's institutions and leaders mismanaged capital inflows, resulting in inflation, bad investment decisions, and near-rogue banks and SOEs. All this occurred on Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's watch, and while he has survived at least two challenges to his leadership, he is weakened and chastened. As a result, consensus decision-making will play a greater role in coming years, while Dung's competitors (including President Truong Tan Sang) reduce his control over policymaking and tighten oversight. The near-term consequence of this dynamic will be a greater likelihood that factional competition will result in uneven policies and conflicting signals.
But don't count Vietnam out of the game yet. Historically, crises have been effective at forcing effective policy choices from the government (such as the 2001 ouster of the party's then general secretary Le Kha Phiu). The current situation is unlikely to result in Dung's exit, but it will spur a serious reexamination of economic policy, especially when it comes to better allocating investment. There is, after all, still a broad consensus among Vietnam's elites that previous reforms should remain in place and that long-term growth and sustained, equitable improvements in the quality of life are needed to ensure the survival of the communist party. The country's economy could also benefit from structural factors that are encouraging investors to consider manufacturing locations other than China.
It may be tempting for manufacturers to look to other countries in Asia, but they should not discount Vietnam's reemergence as a viable investment destination. The country's leaders may be squabbling, but they understand that failure to reform is a larger threat to their primacy than the uncertainty that comes with change.
Roberto Herrera Lim is a Director in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
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