Last updated September 19th, 2018.
The media draws a lot of attention to Myanmar and the frontier market’s ongoing process of opening up to foreign investment. Countless multinationals like Coke, Samsung, and Mastercard are rushing to profit from “Asia’s Last Frontier”.
You’re more likely nowadays to hear about the nation’s Rohingya genocide than its liberalization. But Myanmar’s economy is chugging along despite bad international publicity.
Putting mainstream news trends aside though, a nearby frontier market boasts even greater potential and less of the hype: Cambodia.
Last Frontier Market
These countries share a similar history. Myanmar’s foreign investment law emerged back in 2012, one year after its military junta was dissolved. The Asian Development Bank then engaged Myanmar to fund infrastructure projects.
Cambodia’s turning point was about 15 years earlier. The nation’s first democratically elected government began a transition from a planned economy to its current market based economy in 1995.
Both nations certainly qualify as frontier markets. Myanmar’s nominal GDP per capita is $1,264 which is among Asia’s lowest. Cambodia is a bit higher at $1,390.
This is Cambodia’s strength. They had 15 more years to develop and work out the kinks in their foreign investment laws. They’re now clear and straightforward.
In Cambodia, a foreigner can safely own property, obtain permanent residence, and isn’t concerned about the legal climate changing by the day.
You can’t say the same about Myanmar. It’s “the country offering the least legal protection for foreign companies” according to British risk analysis group Maplecroft.
Myanmar is still politically unstable. The old military junta backs the current government and continues playing a prominent role in politics.
Fraud allegations in the latest elections were widespread too. The law doesn’t guarantee freedom of speech while political discussions are heavily censored.
Smaller investors especially face problems in Myanmar. Their property market is weak, overpriced, and bureaucratic. You don’t really have an option to buy stocks either since the Yangon Stock Exchange only hosts four listed companies.
Cambodia: A Better Frontier Market Than Myanmar
Cambodia certainly isn’t a bastion of democracy itself. But it’s a large improvement compared to Myanmar.
Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed in Cambodia’s constitution. Furthermore, most elections since 1993 have gone by without major allegations of fraud and there hasn’t been a coup in decades.
These are all things even Cambodia’s far wealthier neighbor of Thailand cannot claim.
Both nations are now growing at a rapid pace and have great opportunities for investors. Cambodia’s economy grew by 6.9% in 2017 and Myanmar’s grew 6.4% during the same year.
However, while Myanmar may be the better place to invest in a decade from now, it’s just too risky and bureaucratic to recommend over Cambodia.
Starting a business in Cambodia is a breeze compared to Myanmar. You can also buy property in Cambodia as a foreigner while the laws in Myanmar remain opaque years after being introduced.
The lesson here is that economies pumped up by the media are exactly that: pumped up. Finding the best global opportunities requires a unique outlook.
Plus, a major reason why frontier markets have great potential in the first place is because they’re undiscovered. You shouldn’t follow the herd and ruin the entire nature of that perk by taking CNN’s investment advice.
Want to learn more about how to invest in Cambodia? Here’s a post explaining how you can start.
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