News / Asia

Vietnam's Economic Problems Driven by Unchecked Growth

A mechanic sits working at a roadside motorcycle repair shop in downtown Hanoi, 28 Dec 2010
A mechanic sits working at a roadside motorcycle repair shop in downtown Hanoi, 28 Dec 2010

The stability of Vietnam's economy is under scrutiny as the country confronts soaring inflation, a growing deficit, a weakening currency and falling foreign exchange reserves.  Financial and political analysts say the problems are symptomatic of Vietnam's rapid growth. 

Vietnam's economy is often cited as one of the most promising emerging economies in Asia. The economy expanded by about 6.5 percent in 2010, continuing a decade of strong growth.

But the country finds itself grappling with serious problems, including a trade deficit this year that topped $12 billion.  

The trade deficit and inflation fueled by the economic growth have put pressure on the country's currency, the dong. The government, which tightly control's the dong's movement, has devalued it three times in the past 13 months.

Yet inflation continues, with consumer prices jumping 11 percent this year.

Partly to prop up the currency, Vietnam has spent its foreign exchange reserves, dropping them from a peak of $24 billion in 2008 to $14 billion in September.

Tom Byrne is senior vice president of ratings agency Moodys Investors Service in Singapore.  He says there is increasing downward pressure on the dong and if reserves drop further, the risk of a debt repayment crisis will increase.

"If the exchange rate does weaken further, of course it leads to short-term ramifications on inflation, maybe even more capital flight," Byrne said. "But, over the long term it would help Vietnam's exports gain some competitiveness.  But, the key thing is that whatever the authorities do, what we think would support the rating would be greater macroeconomic stability.  Strong growth, yes, but probably not so strong that it leads to high inflation."

Byrne says government policies favor fast growth, which is good for employment and short-term economic development but not sustainability.  

Many people fear the dong could weaken further, and they are investing in gold and U.S. dollars - which also adds to the pressure on the dong.

Moodys and other rating agencies downgraded Vietnam's credit rating this month because of the unbalanced economic data and an announcement that a state-owned ship building company defaulted on a foreign loan.

Vinashin, one of Vietnam's largest employers, failed to make a payment on a $600 million loan. The Communist Party Politburo has told the company to restructure.  

The default raises concerns the government may now be less able to offer financial support to other state-owned enterprises with heavy debts.

But Carl Thayer, a professor of politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy, says the decision was likely a political rather than economic one.  He says senior leaders probably decided to restructure Vinashin as a show of displeasure with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's fast growth economic policies.

"Vinashin was a showcase of the prime minister. So, it's hard for me not to see this as being political. I don't really think the Vietnamese leadership has made a moral-hazard stance and said 'state-owned enterprises you've got to fend for yourselves'. I mean, there is that sentiment but it isn't dominant because that's shooting yourself in the foot because that's what the government depends on," Thayer said. "They want state enterprises to be effective and they've coddled them. But, Vinishin is just too big to be allowed to go."

Last month the prime minister accepted responsibility for Vinashin's problems - its debts are estimated at $4.5 billion.

Thayer says the Communist Party Congress in January is unlikely to make any major pronouncements on the economy.

And, he says, despite criticism over the economy, the prime minister is likely to retain his position as he has few eligible rivals.

"Even when they faced the donor's meeting this year, the prime minister, despite their criticism, and I'm mirroring some of that, was basically saying we can do growth, have macroeconomic stability, and maintain political stability all at the same time. So, he's juggling three balls and the odds are that it looks like one might be dropped. And, that could be the macroeconomic stability," Thayer stated.

Financial and regional analysts say that Vietnam's recent problems, including the Vinashin default, may scare off some foreign investors. But Byrne at Moody's says Vietnam's long-term economic outlook is still positive.

"Vietnam has made measures, has taken steps to welcome foreign direct investment, and therefore, I think, boost the long-term growth potential.  What really gave Vietnam a shot in the arm was the bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. that was signed some years ago, giving Vietnam access to the U.S. market," he said.

Byrne says aside from balancing payments, Vietnam needs to improve transparency on economic data and policies.  

For instance, he says updates on foreign exchange reserves are released much later than other countries at similar stages of development.  

More information on debt distress and support for state-owned companies, he says, would also improve the investment environment.

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