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Cross the Rubicon

Helping Your Company Sell Into, Raise Capital From, and Find Partners in Emerging Economies

Cross the Rubicon - Helping Your Company Sell Into, Raise Capital From, and Find Partners in Emerging Economies

Is This the End of Vietnam as a Hedging Strategy?

In many ways, Vietnam is a great object lesson on how emerging economies transition from being poor and under-developed, then to a nascent emerging economy, and hopefully ultimately to a country with a viable middle class.  All sorts of challenges present themselves to a country in the midst of this transition, not least of which is escaping the classic “middle income trap” that so many pundits are concerned China might be ready to fall into; however, looking at Vietnam today offers companies the opportunity to reflect not only on what they should be / could be doing in the country, but also whether they are managing the transition other emerging economies they are working within are in the midst of as well.

Vietnam’s impressive GDP growth owes much of its success to the transition from agriculture to manufacturing.  Sounds familiar, right?  After all, that’s what drove much of China’s impressive growth as well.  Today, Vietnam is fighting off terrible inflation (check out the chart below showing December 2011’s published inflation rate of 18.1% – ouch).  Not unlike the omnipresent worries about inflation in China between 1994-1995, when the country’s CPI was running between 20-27%).  Today, Vietnam is struggling to deal with problems in its banking system where its state-owned banks have lent money to state owned enterprises (SOEs), in many cases making investments that aren’t going to be paid back.  Again, a similar problem China has faced, and one that keeps many government planners in Beijing up at nights even today.

We see in Vietnam many of the same growing pains that China has in some cases already gone through, and in other cases is still in the midst of itself.  For companies that were early into Vietnam, much of what animated their decision was the belief that they could use Vietnam as a hedge against wage inflation coming out of China.  Now, as Vietnam’s labor force growth dramatically slows, this hedging strategy may be nearing an end unless the country can dramatically improve its manufacturing productivity, a topic of note in the February 2012 report on Vietnam from McKinsey Global Institute titled “Sustaining Vietnam’s Growth:  the Productivity Challenge.”

The question now becomes more pressing for companies operating in Vietnam:  why are they going to stay in the country?  If in fact the country’s wage rates are likely to dramatically increase in the near term – both as a function of the ongoing problems the government is having controlling inflation as well as a function of diminished workers in the labor pool – can you afford to stay in Vietnam given its other challenges?  The McKinsey report makes note of the problems several multinational executives with facilities in Vietnam shared; namely, that basic problems with infrastructure (including the country’s power grid) and logistics remain challenging.  What once was a bet you could afford to make – staying in Vietnam to hedge against risks in China – now appears to be less relevant.  And, if you have to deal with fundamental inadequate infrastructure issues, a lot of manufacturing heavy industries are going to get serious about going elsewhere (and, I would put good money that many will move back into China).

Consequently, companies will have to revisit why they are in Vietnam in the first place.  Many will ask, as they did years ago in China, whether they can sell to the Vietnamese consumer.  Others, like the McKinsey report notes, will use Vietnam as a staging point to sell into other countries such as Laos and Cambodia.  Others will turn their attention to what I found absolutely fascinating in the McKinsey report:  developing Vietnam as a source for attracting and selling to Chinese tourists.  They note “Vietnam’s location and its long coastline give the country a strong starting position from which to become an early mover in the growing Chinese middle-class market.  The elimination of visa requirements for tourists intending to visit the southern island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s largest, where plans for major resorts and casinos are being actively discussed, is one such opportunity to attract a new segment of tourists.”

Perhaps the days of Vietnam being a hedging strategy for your company are over.  That’s unfortunate not only for the country, but also given it throws up in the air the next part of the undeveloped world where you need to start thinking about finding a supply chain (if that even remains a possibility).  But just maybe Vietnam can play another role for your firm:  possibly as a target market for you to talk to or take care of Chinese middle-class consumers on some of their first foreign excursions?  Few opportunities to more dramatically shape purchasing decisions of Chinese consumers exist than grabbing their attention while on vacation.  Regardless, your company’s strategy in Vietnam is going to have to change.  That is part of what makes the transition Vietnam is going through so important:  yes, initially making product in and exporting from the country was what drove companies in.  But it was those companies with an eye towards more than just that – to selling to Vietnam’s domestic consumers, or to using Vietnam as a platform to sell into other small regional economies – that may ultimately benefit the most.  It’s a similar pivot a lot of SMEs are struggling to make in a much bigger economy – China – as the days of easy and cheap sourcing are coming to an end and the larger question of how to sell into the market becomes increasingly important.


Bag of Links

Interesting news and tidbits from around the world related to strategy evolution by companies leading the way in emerging economies:

WalMart announces it is increasing its stake in Yihaodian, positioning the American retailer to take advantage of China’s growing e-commerce market.

India revised its last quarter’s GDP growth upwards, but economists in the know point out the country is significantly under-investing in its infrastructure, something that could threaten the country’s future growth.

Things in Vietnam look a little, well, “icky” if Ho Chi Minh City’s property market is any indication.

High-end auction house Sotheby’s follows other luxury goods companies and moves in-land within China, announcing a stop in Chengdu for 2011.

The WSJ’s coverage of why wealthy Chinese want to leave China makes for great reading and should cast some light on questions about the inevitability of China’s rise.

Trying to parallel the success of luxury goods’ companies who are successful in China, Adidas announced its plans to develop more “fashion forward” designs for the domestic Chinese market.

Ongoing violence in Kano, Nigeria casts suspicions about whether the government can provide enough security and stability to ensure the country’s promised middle class continues to develop.



Should You Be Thinking About Vietnam?

This past Sunday while in Hong Kong I had the opportunity to sit down over dim sum with an old friend from Duke.  He’s a senior executive at a large multi-national and has factories spread all throughout Asia.  The business he is in – chemicals that go into consumer durables – is highly sensitive to tariff structures, fluctuations in raw material prices, and overall global economic demand.  Because his end customers are consumers purchasing durable goods that can be pushed off to a future date, he tends to see economic contractions well in advance of other industries.


What his business is experiencing suggests the American and European economies have already started to dramatically slow down (no surprise there); however, he is also seeing a fairly substantial relocation of labor intensive manufacturing from China to other parts of southeast Asia:  Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia specifically.  What is particularly interesting is that many – if not most – of his customers in Asia are actually Chinese owned factories that are turning away from China as the location for their factories.  The one exception to this are the Chinese owned factories whose demand is primarily driven from the domestic Chinese market.


In fairness, many of these Chinese owned businesses are relocating as much to access new tariff structures as to address increasing costs in China.  For them, the US has put duties in place if the goods in question are made in China, but no such duties are encountered if the goods are made in Vietnam, Bangladesh or Indonesia.  It’s worth pointing out that this is exactly what would be accomplished if the US Congress’ Currency Reform Act were to pass and actually become law:  industries in China as a consequence of its low cost labor would not come back to the US, they would merely relocate to another low cost labor country in southeast Asia.


Analysts anticipating the end of China’s reign as the dominant low cost manufacturing hub for the world have long pointed to Vietnam as a country that could potentially step into the gap.  Investments to Vietnam have increased over the last several years, with Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Singapore and Malaysia leading the way in terms of foreign direct investment into the country.  Yet, the overall level of development in Vietnam has still lagged in comparison to what many outsiders anticipated.  Why is this?


My friend’s experience opening up a new factory in Vietnam illustrates why the country’s development has lagged behind expectations:  infrastructure and logistics.  His business in particular is very raw material sensitive, which means the precursors he needs to bring into his factory in Vietnam have to be brought in by road or rail, both of which are in very poor shape.  Consequently, his supply chain is longer than what he has in China that translates into higher carrying costs for inventory.  In addition, he has to plan on additional time to get his products to both customers in Vietnam and ports where he can ship.


His experiences beg the question:  should you be thinking about Vietnam?  If your company is in the infrastructure or logistics business, the clear answer is yes, simply because these two areas remain the most pressing needs the country must address if it is to become the next Asian Tiger.  But if your business is in more conventional manufacturing, you need to complete a thorough due diligence process before knowing if you should be in Vietnam or not.

This due diligence should include:

  • evaluating the VAT and duty/tariff structures for your products
  • identifying the location of your proposed factory
  • identifying the location of potential vendors
  • looking at the logistics (road quality, access to rail spur, are either impacted by tropical storms, etc.) between your factory, your potential vendors, and either customers or your outgoing port
  • energy supply (amounts and consistency – you will need for your site)
  • vet potential vendors (manufacturing infrastructure, quality controls, access to properly trained labor, etc.)


Before you can answer whether you should be thinking about Vietnam, you need to complete this sort of preliminary analysis.  The answer to your question might be a resounding “yes” on one front (it might get you around a China-specific tariff problem), but an absolute “no” on another (logistics).  The role of a firm like Rubicon is to make this missionary process easy, painless and cost-effective for your company.  If you are interested in a proposal on what it would take to evaluate Vietnam for your business, email us to talk further.