Pots of gold: Why is Myanmar a better bet than Haiti?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 17, 2013
Haiti, Myanmar, pot of gold

For Myanmar, the pot of gold lies at the end of the rainbow. Not so, Haiti

Haiti is not open for business, says Nigel Fisher, the United Nations’ voice – and face – around these parts. Or words to that effect. So far, so usual, except when one notes that poor, undeveloped  Myanmar is suddenly deemed to be gloriously open for business.

According to the Myanmar Investment Commission, the country received US$794 million in foreign investment over nine months of the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

The stampede towards Rangoon, as described by Paulius Kucinas, would be puzzling if almost the only thing anyone knew about it was George W Bush’s unflattering categorization as “the outpost of tyranny”. But then there’s 40 years of arrested development, the lack of a fully functioning banking system and the woeful absence of an independent central bank. Myanmar also has the lowest mobile phone penetration in the world, barring North Korea. Clearly, for the moment, those investing in Myanmar would have to use smoke signals to communicate with the wider world.

The bullishness has stubbornly run more than a year. Last March, Singapore-based investor Jim Rogers told Bloomberg that Myanmar today is like China in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping was launching the economic reforms that helped transform his country into the world’s second-largest economy.  Rogers added that Myanmar had “everything – it’s right between China and India, 60 million people, massive natural resources, agriculture…you could feed much of Asia, they have metals, they have energy.”

Okay, so Haiti is none of these things, but it does at least have three solid talking points:

♠ mobile phone penetration is just under 50 per cent of its total population of 10 million

♣ geographical proximity to the US

♦ the US’s HELP or Haiti Economic Lift Programme Act, which provides preferential US market access to apparel exports from Haiti wherever the raw material originates

And yet, never mind a business stampede, there’s little sign even of any languid strolling towards Haiti. That’s pretty extraordinary, even if you factor in the lack of transparency that Mr Fisher from the UN was talking about. But, isn’t it always the case that the bigger the gamble, the bigger the gain or loss.  In describing the new push towards Myanmar, Kucinas quoted a banker in Davos reciting a line from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “Come my friends, Tis not too late to seek a newer world”. It seemed to symbolise a new appetite for risk, says Kucinas.

Poetry is all very well, but does Tennyson really apply to all frontier markets, including Haiti? Surely not. There don’t seem to be many investors “seeking a new world” in Haiti.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac