One of the men tasked with making Mongolia attractive to investors again reckons he’ll need about six years to do the job and is looking at Singapore as a model.
Byambasaikhan Bayanjargal said he has a “mountain to climb” in cleaning house at Erdenes Mongol LLC., the umbrella company he now heads that holds the government’s stakes in businesses that control Mongolia’s deposits of copper, coal, gold and other minerals.
In an interview in the capital Ulaanbaatar on Feb. 17, Byambasaikhan said he’ll restructure Erdenes management and finances, get audits from the big four accounting firms, raise overseas capital and sell shares in some of its assets to the public.
A “Mongolian Temasek,” he said in explaining his vision for the company, a reference to Temasek Holdings Pte in Singapore that manages about S$223 billion ($164 billion) in investments on behalf of the government.
“My job is find out what the issues are and then appoint proper people to restructure these companies,” said Byambasaikhan, 37, a graduate of George Washington’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “My view is that it’s a six year job.”
Byambasaikhan was handed the task by Mongolia’s Prime Minister Saikhanbileg Chimed who came into power last November after his predecessor was ousted in a no-confidence vote.
Saikhanbileg formed a coalition government and made clear his priority was the economy and sorting out a smorgasboard of conflicts with foreign investors.
In 2011, Mongolia’s economy grew at a world-beating 17.3 percent as the resource-rich country attracted billions of dollars in investment by some of the biggest mining companies, Rio Tinto Group among them.
Economic growth slowed to 7.8 percent in 2014, a healthy clip for most countries, but the first year of single digit expansion in Mongolia since 2010. The currency, the tugrik, has slumped 42 percent over the past 24 months in tandem with a more than 80 percent plunge in foreign direct investment.
Much of what’s turned investors off Mongolia is reflected in Rio Tinto’s operations in a copper and gold mine it controls known as Oyu Tolgoi.
Development of the mine -- the country’s single biggest investment with $6.6 billion spent and another $5.4 billion planned -- has stalled over disputes on profit sharing, taxes and management. Similar conflicts have held up development of the $4 billion Tavan Tolgoi coal mine in the Gobi Desert.
Dozens of local and foreign mining companies have halted operations after more than 100 exploration licenses were revoked when the official in charge of distributing them was convicted on corruption charges and jailed.
Mongolia’s image wasn’t helped last month when a court in Ulaanbaatar jailed three foreign businessmen for as long as six years for tax evasion. Foreign and Mongolian business groups said the case was flawed as did Mongolia’s President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, who said some of the judicial procedures were unacceptable.
Byambasaikhan enters this messy picture saying he’ll bring in qualified professionals to manage Erdenes Mongol, which holds the government’s portion of the Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi mines.
It also has stakes in three other mines, Shivee Ovoo JSC coal mine, Baganuur JSC coal mine and Erdenet Mining Corporation LLC.
Byambasaikhan’s “appointment represents a drastic change in direction for Erdenes Mongol, reflective of Prime Minister Saikhanbileg’s determination to reignite the economy before next year’s elections,” Chris MacDougall, Managing Director of Mongolian Investment Banking Group LLC., said by e-mail.
“At a time when relations with foreign stakeholders are beyond strained, Mr. Byambasaikhan’s true value will be demonstrated in being the nation’s most trusted intermediary,” MacDougall said.
Byambasaikhan’s career includes a six-year stint in project finance at the Asian Development Bank, which sent him to Central Asia to develop energy projects. In 2010, he moved back to Mongolia to manage the $120 million Salkhit wind farm project as the CEO of Newcom Group.
“It’s good to have someone who understands the business and who has a clear vision of what needs to be done, in particular on transparency,” said Matthieu D. Le Blan, the resident representative for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
“By appointing strong senior management those assets can show their true value. Also, it will serves as a bit of a test of transparency for a wealth fund,” Le Blan said.
Byambasaikhan said investment decisions on Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi mines are the two most important priorities for his country this year, adding that they “will open doors for others to do their business.”
Meantime, he’s urging investors to plant a flag in Mongolia before the next boom cycle.
“Once things take off you are better positioned than the next guy, because you know the country, you know the business and you know the people who are running the companies,” he said. “So building these relationships now make sense.”