One of the significant events Vietnam was hoping to occur this June unfortunately did not transpire—being on the Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) watch list for emerging markets. Instead, Vietnam was not upgraded and remained on the frontier-market listing. It is estimated Vietnam could receive up to US $10 billion worth of foreign capital in frontier market-focused funds, but could receive much more from emerging market-focused funds. The Vietnamese Government considers MSCI’s watch list as a top-priority target as it could lure a huge amount of foreign capital to the Vietnamese economy. According to Nguyễn Thị Bích Nga, deputy director of the State Securities Commission’s International Co-operation Department, [Vietnam] has been making the best efforts to improve the legal framework, introduce new securities products and make the market more professional.
One of those “best efforts” is the amendment of the securities law that would make the market fairer between domestic and foreign investors (draft law to amend law on securities; last revised by Decree 60/2015/ND-CP). That 2015 revision eased restrictions on Foreign Ownership Limits (FOL); however, MSCI wants to see even further progress on relaxing those restrictions. According to the draft version (as a general rule), foreign investors are allowed to own 100 per cent of the shares of a Vietnamese company that operates in a non-critical business sector. This applies to listed firms, equitized state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and private non-listed businesses. Shareholders of each company will decide for themselves the amount of foreign-owned shares eligible. This is different from the current Securities Law, which automatically sets the FOL at listed companies in Vietnam at 49 percent. Some sectors, such as banking or aviation, have a stricter limit at only 30 percent.
Experts believe that with the relaxed rules, Vietnam would be likely to attract at least US $5 billion of new capital from abroad and receive the upgrade that it has been waiting for. With fewer restrictions on foreign ownership, Vietnamese firms would become more attractive to major investment funds who are willing to pour millions of USD into Vietnamese businesses. With more foreign-ownership, companies will have a broader, global, perspective and a level of accountability to help drive transparency and change. Mai Le, analyst at PYN Asia Research, noted that out of all the changes in the Securities Law, the [capital] market is most anxiously waiting the FOL rule to take effect.
MSCI Decision and Criteria
Kuwait was upgraded to the MSCI emerging market watch list (and not Vietnam) specifically because of, “…enhancements [that] removed foreign ownership restrictions on listed banks and simplification of requirements for investor registration.” Not coincidentally, those are the areas that Vietnam has not satisfied under MSCIs criteria. Under MSCIs criteria of “Openness to Foreign Ownership”, Vietnam ranks as improvement needed in FOL level, foreign room level, and equal rights to foreign investors. Many experts felt that Vietnam has met more standards of an emerging market than similar markets such as Pakistan and the Philippines (or Kuwait), but also had the best qualitative indicators among frontier markets. While that may be true, it is apparent that MSCI is more concerned with long-term sustainability, which is why “openness to foreign ownership” is MSCIs top criteria for assessing upgrades.
CPTPP, EVFTA, EVIPA and Their Potential Effects on MSCI 2020
If Vietnam rectifies the discrepancies in their laws regarding investments and securities with the trade agreements of CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership), EVFTA (European Union—Vietnam Free Trade Agreement), and EVIPA (European Union—Vietnam Investment Protection Agreement), they will have a greater chance at making the MSCI watch list upgrade for 2020. Vietnam will most likely not make the list if they continue to table or endlessly debate these critical, progressive revisions. Streamlining the draft laws on investment and securities with CPTPP, EVFTA, and EVIPA, and implementing them expeditiously will give MSCI hard-data to use in their June 2020 evaluation instead of mere speculation. Moving in that direction, one of the most significant changes in the draft law on securities is the expansion of the foreign holding cap in public companies. Accordingly, public companies would be subject to no restrictions on foreign holdings, unless otherwise prescribed by “treaties to which Vietnam has acceded or a specialized law.” There is a minor legal distinction between “treaties” and “agreements”; however, in the spirt of the law and especially for cementing these new trading relationships, Vietnam should draw no distinction and apply them as such. Under the CPTPP and EVFTA/EVIPA, Vietnam has expressly restricted FOL in specific, listed industries that are of national significance or security; therefore, the government should aggressively restructure their current drafts to mirror that CPTPP, EVFTA, and EVIPA specific language. The CPTPP does have FOL set to what the current Vietnamese law is (currently 30 percent); however, it only states that it is relative to whatever the “current” law is—so, change the law.
This would mean removing the 30 percent FOL cap in the banking industry that is currently in place (even in the draft law to revise the law on securities). According to Long Ngo, associate director at the Research Department at Viet Capital Securities, investment trends in the banking industry will depend on when the government lifts the FOL. As long as the government keeps FOL at the 30 percent level, Vietnam’s capital markets will not expand and MSCI will not consider Vietnam for the watch list upgrade. By maintaining their current operational paradigm, Vietnam is only hampering its own development and future.
If Vietnam would internalize operating from a global perspective, there should be no distinctions between a foreign investor and a domestic one (other than protected industries of national security). CPTPP, EVFTA, and EVIFA create “National Treatment” of any foreign-investor, which grants (in effect) domestic status. Article 9.1 of CPTPP stipulates all “covered” investments (EVIPA is essentially the same list), including: (a) an enterprise; (b) shares, stock and other forms of equity participation in an enterprise; (c) bonds, debentures, other debt instruments and loans;…(f) intellectual property rights; (g) licences, authorisations, permits and similar rights conferred. If Vietnam would stipulate in their draft laws this position already agreed to in CPTPP, EVFTA and EVIPA, it would virtually eliminate all three of MSCIs concerns that it has with Vietnam currently.
With the guarantee of no distinction between a foreign-investor and a domestic one, entities that have been reluctant to invest millions of USD in Vietnamese businesses will now feel much more comfortable about the investment environment; thus creating a large influx into Vietnamese capital markets. MSCI will notice these changes and most likely add Vietnam to 2020s watch list for emerging markets, creating another large inlay to Vietnam’s markets. If the government would match their investment and securities laws with the current trade agreements of CPTPP, EVFTA, and EVIPA, they would realize their self-stated goal of achieving MSCI watch list for emerging-market status.
A major goal of Vietnam’s government was not realized in July. Despite strong economic activity and other positive indicators, MSCI did not place them on the highly anticipated watch list for emerging markets. If Vietnam takes a hard look at the criteria that kept them from the upgrade, it is apparent that the solution for most of the roadblocks cited have already been addressed in the CPTPP, EVFTA, and EVIPA. The government merely needs to incorporate the trade agreement language into their existing laws. The tabling until May 2020 of the passage of the draft law to amend the law on investments through Resolution 8 (July 2019) was not a strategically beneficial move for Vietnam in order to make the 2020 MSCI watch list. Several key provisions in that draft (if in-place and operational) would give MSCI concrete data to observe (rather than speculative) and improve Vietnam’s chances of an upgrade. Additionally, changes to the draft law on the law on securities to be in line with the provisions of CPTPP and EVIPA would also be in Vietnam’s favor. Investor’s (and MSCI) minds would be eased if Vietnam will aggressively pursue regulatory reform and potentially add another US $15 billion to their capital markets.
The best indicator that reform is required to the current draft laws on amending the law on securities and investments came from the government itself. “Some items are unclear while others are unreasonable and no longer fit the Vietnamese market’s conditions,” the Government said in a report submitted to the National Assembly’s Economic Committee. Those issues may “befuddle investors, market members and regulators,” adding that “policymakers must adjust the law [emphasis added] so it matches international standards and agreements to which Vietnam is committed.”