Vietnam statistics just don't add up

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Farmers plant rice in a paddy field in front of newly built villas in Hanoi. Vietnam's property market has been stagnant for a while, but figures of unsold houses reported by state agencies, real estate associations, and market research agencies are different.

Inconsistent figures about Vietnam's economy and society are confusing the people and their representatives in the parliament the National Assembly.

This confusion puts the country at risk, because no effective solutions can be carried out without reliable information on and quantification of many problems facing us today.

Over the past few years, for instance, banks' bad debts and unsold real estate properties have become major problems for the economy. However, the reliability of statistics regarding these problems is very low.

For instance, at the end of last year, Nguyen Van Binh, Governor of the State Bank of Vietnam, announced that bad debts accounted for 10 percent of local banks' loans. It was higher than the 8.6 percent reported by the central bank's inspectors.

But, it was 7.8 percent in the government's report to the National Assembly at the ongoing session, while the National Finance Supervisory Committee with the assembly said it was 11.8 percent.

In reality, it might be much worse. Economists noted a circular that the central bank introduced in January requiring banks to classify their loans and make provisions for bad debts could bring one bank's bad debt-to-loan ratio from 3-4 percent to 10-15 percent, or even higher.

The central bank governor had said then that the circular will draw a clearer and more correct picture of banks' bad debts.

However, just three days before June 1, the date when the circular was supposed to come into effect, the central bank announced that it will be delayed for one year.

That means the real, accurate situation about local banks' bad debts will not be known until June 2014.

When it comes to the local property market, it is obvious to everyone that things have been stagnant for a while, that many houses are unsold. But exactly how many is never known correctly, as figures reported by state agencies, real estate associations, and market research agencies are different. Is it 200,000 or 40,000 houses?

The reliability of Vietnam's public debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is also questionable.

The government insists that it is some 55 percent, meaning that it is still within safety limits, as international organizations like the World Bank say up to 60 percent as safe.

However, many economists have repeatedly pointed out that Vietnam's method of calculating the national debt is problematic, as it excludes state-owned enterprises' debts unguaranteed by the government, which is against international norms.

They have said that Vietnam's ratio has already exceeded the safety level. In its latest report, the National Assembly's economic committee has also pointed out that if international norms are followed, the country's public debt could reach 95 percent of GDP.

People also doubt the accuracy of employment figures.

Official figures say that since 2010, every year over 50,000 businesses have gone bankrupt, while others have scaled down their operation by at least 30 percent, but they also say new jobs were created for 1.5-1.6 million people, and that unemployment rate is declining.

Let us look at traffic accident statistics.

The Ministry of Health reported that 25,000 people met with traffic
accidents during Tet, Vietnam's Lunar  New Year holiday, between February 10-20. The  National Traffic Safety Committee put it at 700.

We should feel glad that 6.85 million foreigners reportedly visited Vietnam last year, a record year-on-year increase of 9.5 percent, despite the world economic downturn. Then why are travel companies complaining about little business and other difficulties? Moreover, experts say the figures compiled by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism include foreigners who visit Vietnam for purposes other than travelling, but the agency routinely makes it look as though they are all tourists. 

Then there are state monopolies like the Electricity of Vietnam and the Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam) always complaining about suffering losses and asking for prices to be increased, but no one knows if their claims are true or not. 

What can be the reasons for these misleading, unreliable and confusing figures? Technical mistakes? A lack of responsibility? Or, perhaps someone is making the situation look better than it actually is to hide their incompetence?

People have the right to know what is really happening in their country. And the legislative and executive arms of the country also need accurate figures for them to come up with policies that can effectively tackle all the problems that the country is mired in.

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