World Economy

This frontier market may be the one to watch

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
Yoma's foray into Myanmar

Amid increased interest in frontier markets, once-isolated and still impoverished Myanmar is drawing interest as it pushes through reforms and its companies tap fresh opportunities, but the path may not be entirely smooth.

"The New Kid on the block has the right stuff to shine," ANZ said in a note, but it added, "It remains to be seen whether structural reforms will be persistently pursued or the lack of strong legal and economic institutions will put a dampener on its growth potential."

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While some needed structural reforms have proceeded rapidly over the past few years as the economy opened up and international sanctions against the country's previous harsh military regime were gradually loosened, more needs to be done, ANZ said as it initiated coverage of the economy.

"The challenge for policymakers is to diversify the revenue base away from its over-dependence on gas and natural resources," ANZ said.

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It's also concerned about the banking sector. "State-owned banks remain dominant, while effective regulation and supervision is lacking," it said, noting laws granting the central bank more independence have been delayed, hampering efforts to develop effective monetary policy tools and maintain price stability.

The private sector is stepping into some of the structural breaches. Yoma Strategic, a Singapore-listed conglomerate previously largely focused on property development in the country, is transforming itself into a conglomerate with fresh initiatives in agriculture, education and cold-storage businesses.

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This week, Yoma announced plans to develop two private international schools within its Yangon properties, while also setting up a premium local private school.

"I hope it will be the first of many because education is a very important aspect in our nation building and this has lagged behind so badly over the last 50 years," Serge Pun, Yoma's executive chairman, told CNBC. "If you can get education right, within a couple of generations, I think we'll be back on top."

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While acknowledging his schools will be aimed at wealthier Myanmarese and expatriates, he noted that many students are already going overseas to study and he's hoping these schools will raise the bar for local education.

Yoma is also tying up with Japanese company Kokubu & Co. to enter the cold storage and logistics segment.

Brent Levin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"Many of our farm produce do not reach the market because by the time they reach the market, it's no good any more, it's perishable," Pun said.

The moves complement Yoma's agreements with the International Finance Corporation, which is part of the World Bank Group, for agriculture and logistics development, as well as private sector deals in the coffee and dairy businesses, which will include supplying UHT milk.

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Pun doesn't expect the upcoming elections next year will derail the country's trajectory.

"It's a fight within the progressive force over who is going to be president," Pun said. "I don't think they will negatively affect the economic policies, the education policies and many other policies that have been put in place."

ANZ, like Yoma, sees a number of opportunities in the country.

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Myanmar has a strategic location between China and India as well as large reserves of oil, gas and other minerals, ANZ noted.

"Millions of hectares of arable land along with abundant water provide huge agricultural potential," said ANZ, adding that the relatively young population, with a median age of around 27, means it has potential as a center for low cost labor-intensive sectors.

But the positives remain difficult for investors to tap. Yoma is listed on Singapore's stock exchange, but valuations may have run of the company's fundamentals. CIMB this week upgraded it to a Hold, citing the stock's recent decline.

As many as 10 Myanmar companies are looking into listing on Singapore's exchange, but it may take years for those plans to bear fruit. Plans to establish a local stock exchange by 2015 appear to be behind schedule, while the current over-the-counter exchange has only two listed firms, which rarely trade.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1