Stock market strategists picking Bangladesh over Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2019, after a losing year in the three, returned to the drawing board as Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won all but 10 out of 300 parliamentary seats for a third-term sweep.
The opposition coalition, for the first time without their long-serving Bangladesh National Party leader in jail for corruption, and independent observers denounced a crackdown on media and political critics in advance, and widespread irregularities during the voting, including alleged ballot-stuffing and list purges. Violence again was prominent with dozens of deaths and injuries, and investors braced for possible resumption of nationwide strikes if recount and rerun demands are spurned, as with previous League victories under dubious circumstances. Just as importantly, Hasina and her team now have an unchallenged economic policy grip, with years of 6% growth at risk from export competitiveness and banking system overhaul delays.
The currency did not depreciate as badly against the dollar with $30 billion in reserves covering six months imports, but the current account surplus turned to deficit the past fiscal year with high capital goods and oil demand. Garment exports and remittances are the main balance of payments drivers. The former thrive with European trade benefits and wages under $100/month, below China and Indochina rivals. Hasina promised to raise the minimum salary during the election campaign without offering productivity offsets to meet international clothing company skills and technology qualms. She previously agreed to upgrade building and worker safety standards after a tragic fire and factory collapse killed hundreds, and foreign monitors note improvements but enforcement is still spotty. Remittance flows were up 15% to $15 billion in the fiscal year ending in June, but the weak taka was a key explanation as contracts end for Middle East construction crews in particular.
A consumer growth play
The country’s population of over 150 million with a median age of 25 is often pitched as a consumer growth play, with auto, healthcare and smart phone providers among popular stock exchange listings. Honda joined other foreign operators to recently set up a motorcycle factory, and a local competitor will launch a public equity offering in the coming months. Samsung announced it will soon assemble phones for the domestic market, and also manufacture appliances like refrigerators still yet to become standard household items. Pharmaceuticals companies like heavyweight Beximco register double-digit earnings increases, and are expanding abroad regardless of dedicated government strategy or support, with applications on file with the US Food and Drug Administration.
Infrastructure projects, including the Padma Bridge between the capital and southwest and the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway extension, will boost commercial vehicle sales growing 20% annually and tourism both from Western and Asian visitors. Big hotel chains Hilton and Marriott are in place, and more affordable outlets are opening for middle-class Chinese and Indian visitors.
Bad loan levels and management at leading state banks still threaten the system, and the International Monetary Fund in its 2018 Article IV report urged faster action with problems festering for a decade
Bad loan levels and management at leading state banks still threaten the system, and the International Monetary Fund in its 2018 Article IV report urged faster action with problems festering for a decade. The administration did not preview course shifts in the election run-up, and private sector competitors have diversified into new business lines and mobile money to survive. Digital payments applications are in the startup phase, and new lending and retail entrants have already emerged to challenge traditional banking franchises in a country where account penetration is limited.
In Sri Lanka bank valuations are already below book value amid monetary and political uncertainties, with IMF program review on hold until the government is restored or new elections as the president, parliament and supreme court clash over constitutional practice for dismissing the prime minister. Fiscal and current account deficits continue to trigger concern, with the latter approaching 4% of gross domestic product. Portfolio outflows, with 15% currency depreciation against the dollar, further shrank reserves to $8 billion in October. The central bank raised benchmark rates in November in a tightening pattern that will likely last and keep growth at the 3% level. Pakistan likewise runs large twin deficits against the background of higher interest rates and a tumbling currency. As the new Imran Khan government negotiates another Fund agreement estimated in the $5 billion range, sub-region stocks are not yet poised for a bad news bounce.