Growth and Demand Both Fuel US Business Optimism in ASEAN

Increased protectionism, rising regional tensions among continued challenges

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

US companies are optimistic about investment opportunities in ASEAN as businesses see solid growth in domestic consumption, according to a special ASEAN 50th anniversary edition of the 2018 ASEAN Business Outlook Survey, released on September 12 by the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.

The survey, which polled senior executives representing US companies in all ten ASEAN countries, found that 56 percent expect their profits to increase this year over last, and 74 percent expect higher profits in 2018. Fifty-eight percent reported that ASEAN markets have become more important for their companies' global bottom lines over the last two years, and 62 percent of companies surveyed say their level of trade and investment in ASEAN has increased during this period. Over the next five years, 80 percent expect that their level of trade and investment in ASEAN will increase.

Business leaders point to the region’s economic growth and rise in the middle/consumer class as top reasons for this increase, especially in Singapore (73 percent), the Philippines (70 percent), and Indonesia (65 percent). Across ASEAN, the sectors most poised to benefit from the rise of the middle/consumer class are wholesale/retail (74 percent) and software/IT/telecoms (68 percent).

Respondents also demonstrated confidence about continued growth in ASEAN through plans for business expansion. Seventy-one percent plan to expand their business to another ASEAN country, and 62 percent plan to expand within their response location. The most common destinations for business expansion overseas were Vietnam, Myanmar, and Indonesia. Forty-five percent of companies reported that they primarily serve the local market, in contrast to the 13 percent of companies which primarily export.

“Taken as a whole, ASEAN is an extremely dynamic and attractive market, with many of our companies operating – and thinking – regionally,” said A. Lin Neumann, Managing Director of AmCham Indonesia.

“With Indonesia making up about 60 percent of the ASEAN market, this is obviously good news here in Jakarta.”

“This survey demonstrates clearly and vividly that US commercial interests in ASEAN are vast, and the region is vital to US jobs and economic growth,” said Tami Overby, senior vice president for Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce.

“Economic integration in Asia, and between Asia and other parts of the world, is a fact.  It is also a fact that if US policy does not support deeper engagement by US companies in this part of the world, it will be left behind – particularly small and medium-sized US exporters.  If we want to support US economic growth, we need to make new trade deals in Asia, not pull out of them,” she said.

Ann Yom Steel, Executive Director, AmCham Singapore commented, “As the United States invests more in ASEAN countries than anywhere else in the Asia-Pacific region, strong US-ASEAN ties are critical. Singapore serves as an important US trading partner, a major destination for US investment, and is key to providing a vital set of links in US companies’ global supply and value chains. So it is no surprise that American companies choose Singapore as their Asia-Pacific regional headquarters. We will continue to push for an even closer cooperation between the US and our partners here through shared principles of dynamic growth and emerging opportunities.”

Challenges to growth

While optimism remains strong, there has also been a clear softening of sentiment toward business prospects in the region over the past few years. In the 2015 survey, for example, 72 percent of respondents said their level of trade and investment in the region had increased over the prior two years. In 2013, 91 percent of respondents said their trade and investment would increase in the next five years.  

In addition, a plurality (48 percent) of businesses expects that bilateral ties between ASEAN countries and China will deepen and nearly the same percentage (46 percent) indicate that there will be potential negative effects on their company’s operations should the US take punitive trade action against China.

As in previous years’ surveys, US companies cite corruption as their single greatest concern in the region (except in Brunei and Singapore), followed by laws and regulations that inhibit business expansion. Respondents also reported a moderate to substantial decrease in their level of satisfaction with these and 13 other investment climate indicators over the past five years. The concern with corruption was virtually unchanged, while satisfaction with personal security, sentiment toward the United States, political stability, and laws and regulations declined from 2012-17.

In previous surveys, executives have indicated that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will make the region more attractive to investment. This year, respondents recommended several priority areas for ASEAN to address in the context of the AEC, including corruption, non-tariff barriers, transparency, and good governance.

Download the 2018 ASEAN Business Outlook Survey here.

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