Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Danger Signs Seen in Vietnam Stimulus

HANOI -- Vietnam boasts one of the developing world's most resilient economies this year, but economists fear the success masks serious problems, as loose state-directed lending risks pushing Vietnam into a new speculative bubble.

Those concerns were highlighted Tuesday, when Fitch Ratings downgraded Vietnam's local currency rating, citing "a steady deterioration in the country's fiscal position" and a banking system that's "vulnerable to potential systemic stress" as the government floods the economy with credit.

Similar worries affect the U.S. and China, which are under pressure to prepare to pull in the reins of government stimulus. But the fears are especially pronounced in Vietnam, one of the most-closely watched emerging economies and an increasingly important magnet for foreign direct investment. Much of its economy is dominated by state enterprises that have a history of making ill-advised investments outside their core businesses, which have contributed to past speculative behavior and bouts of overheating.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis, state banks have poured at least $19 billion in loans into the economy, equivalent to about one-fifth of the country's annual gross domestic product, according to the government. The money is a key plank of a stimulus program in which the state provides interest-rate subsidies to banks so they can make more loans to help state enterprises and exporters.

The measures appear to be paying off in the short term, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting growth of 3.3% this year, while neighbors such as Thailand and Malaysia face steep contractions.

On Wednesday, the government said GDP expanded 3.9% in the first half of the year compared with a year earlier, with growth accelerating to 4.5% in the second quarter from 3.1% during the first quarter. Vietnam's economy expanded 6.2% in 2008 and 8.5% in 2007.

Stock market prices are also sharply higher, with Vietnam's benchmark index up 86% since the beginning of March. Residential property prices are climbing in many parts of Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the center of commerce and home to the stock exchange, economists say.

Providing lots of credit is "a good strategy. Our stimulus measures force banks to lend productively," says Le Xuan Nghia, vice chairman of the National Financial Supervisory Commission, one of the country's main financial regulators.

But with so much money being funneled into the economy, many people on the street fear a return of inflation, which accelerated to 28% in mid-2008 before easing to 5.6% in May.

Many Vietnamese are responding by investing whatever cash they can scrape together as fears about inflation revive. In the dust-choked eastern suburbs of Hanoi, for instance, a property boom is in full swing. A series of state and privately owned companies are erecting an arc of satellite towns in the area to ease congestion in old Hanoi, where cars and delivery trucks struggle to squeeze past swarms of motor-scooters and bicycles.

Nguyen Thi Huyen, a broker for the Van Khe New Urban City project, says she is putting together 10 or more deals a month at the development, up from just two or three this time last year. Some units have changed hands five times or more and prices have risen six-fold since the project was launched at the peak of Vietnam's boom in 2007, she says.

Buyers are "worrying about inflation and want to invest their money somewhere safe," Ms. Huyen says, lighting a candle at a shrine in her office where several piles of facsimile $100 bills are stacked up for good luck.

Some economists in Vietnam fear the country's politicians are so enmeshed in their growth-oriented five-year economic plans that they won't be willing to turn off the stimulus tap until inflation has already reared its head again. In April, the government extended by two years a lending-stimulus program that pays four percentage points of interest on any loans by Vietnamese banks to the business sector, encouraging banks to lend more aggressively.

"They are trying to turn back the clock to 2006 and 2007, when the name of the game was exporting as much as possible to profligate Americans. But Americans might not resume spending again in the same way, and we could end up with a serious inflation problem again," says an economist with close knowledge of government thinking.

While the "government's been successful at stabilizing the economy" in recent months, officials "also need to consider the longer-term risks, such as excess liquidity in the banking system and its potential to spark inflation," says Tran Le Khanh, chief investment officer at Prudential Vietnam Fund Management, Prudential PLC's Vietnam fund business.

The World Bank cautioned the Vietnamese government in report last month that state-directed lending could be hampering overhauls at state enterprises, and Vietnam might instead want to focus on helping people who have lost their jobs in the downturn. "It might be good to pause and reflect whether sustaining economic activity should remain the single priority," the World Bank said.

Other analysts worry the lending spree could escalate bad debt problems in the banking sector. Officially, nonperforming loans stand at 2.6%, up from 2.2% at the end of last year. But Vietnam doesn't calculate bad-debt rates according to international standards. Fitch Ratings recently estimated the real figure may have been as high as 13% of total loans at the end of 2008. In its ratings downgrade Tuesday, it said the country's loan-subsidy program "is almost certain to make matters worse."

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