Officials allay concerns over overseas investments

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While some Vietnamese experts are concerned about the economic efficiency of investing in overseas projects, officials say it's still too soon to judge.

Over the past two decades, Vietnamese businesses have expanded their investment to 53 countries and territories. Besides traditional markets in Laos, Cambodia and Russia, they have begun targeting new ones in Europe, the US, Australia and Africa. Most overseas projects are in mining, energy, agricultural and financial sectors.

In total, Vietnamese businesses have invested US$8.4 billion in 558 overseas projects, according to the Planning and Investment Ministry's Foreign Investment Agency.

Some of these investments have been clear successes.

Military-run telecom giant Viettel, for instance, launched its phone and Internet service in Cambodia three years ago and now holds 50 percent of the landline market there. Its business in Laos is also doing well, with around 1.4 million subscribers.

State oil and gas group PetroVietnam, which had invested in 24 overseas projects as of the end of last October, said it will see its first oil flows in Malaysia this March. At the end of next year, the company is set to make its first oil extraction from the Junin-2 block in Venezuela.

Do Nhat Hoang, director of the Foreign Investment Agency, was quoted in a Vietnam News Agency report last Sunday as saying that Vietnamese companies will continue to invest more in other countries. He estimated total overseas investment in 2011 to rise to between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

But with larger investment comes greater concern about the way money is used.

Experts say sending a lot of money abroad can put more pressure on the country's balance of payments, especially when most of such projects have not begun producing returns on investment.

They also said with a large part of the overseas investments made by major state-owned enterprises, estimated at around 60-70 percent, there is also a problem of managing state capital.

The Planning and Investment Ministry has said that although overseas investment grew every year between 1989-2010, the average profit margin was really low, at 2.02 percent. Overseas profits repatriated to Vietnam were recorded at only $39 million.

Phan Huu Thang, former director of the Foreign Investment Agency, explained that investment is a long term process and it will take some time for projects to become profitable.

Oil projects, for instance, need to go through a process of exploration and exploitation to get results, he said.

Hoang also said most big overseas projects overseas are still in their early stages, which means they are not making huge profits.

Hoang said the Planning and Investment Ministry will continue to facilitate investment in energy, mining and agricultural projects overseas so that businesses can bring home more materials for local production.

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