Discussion at this year’s Vietnam M&A Forum, which took place earlier this month in Ho Chi Minh City, revolved around the challenges facing Vietnam’s M&A market and the need for a big push to maintain the momentum of previous years.

As of this month, deals have fallen short of the record levels in 2016, and surpassing the US$5.8 billion total looks like a tall order. Although impressive, last year’s figure represented just 5% of Southeast Asia’s total M&A activity, with Singapore alone claiming over 50%. Additionally, 64% of the deals in Vietnam were valued at less than US$20 million. While 77% of the deals were domestic, Thai firms were the biggest foreign buyers in terms of value, enacting aggressive takeovers of major Vietnamese firms in retail and consumer goods. In terms of quantity most deals came from Singapore and Japan.

With advantages of proximity in terms of geography, culture, and climate, Thai firms have sought to penetrate the growing Vietnamese market quickly. Alongside other neighbouring nations who have struggled as their home markets mature, they have increasingly sought high-growth or low-production-cost economies for expansion elsewhere.

There is a lot to celebrate, but the total value of M&A activity reached just US$1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2017, a drop of 24.4 percent year-on-year. A slowdown in the State’s equitisation process is partially to blame for the drop, and many of the speakers at the M&A Forum expressed the need for a big push in the second half of the year.

Trains, planes and automobiles

To continue the high rate of economic growth achieved over the past few years, the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) concluded that Vietnam is in dire need of M&A investment in the infrastructure sector. Deals need to come in thick and fast across many branches of the economy, with roads, railways, airports and seaports needing upgrades to meet international standards, in addition to the continued expansion of the country’s real estate and retail conglomerates.

As well as the increased divestments of State-owned enterprises, Vietnam’s administrative policy framework will need to be improved to attract and accommodate foreign investors.

Banking on big deals

Besides recent prime ministerial decisions regarding the SOE equitisation process, the government has made a priority of dealing with non-performing loans. This in particular could mean big news for M&A activity in the banking sector.

A resolution was recently adopted by the country’s National Assembly, with the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) aiming to reduce the ratio of non-performing loans (NPLs) to below 3 percent by 2020. As part of the resolution, credit institutions, foreign entities and bad debt trading institutions will be able to buy and sell bad debts in an open and transparent way.

The move has had a positive impact on banking shares, and recent reports suggest that South Korea’s Shinhan Bank is poised to acquire a financial institution in Vietnam, following its takeover of ANZ Vietnam’s retail business. Two Japanese investors are also negotiating the purchase of stakes in two different Vietnamese financial institutions.

Moves like these show that foreign firms appreciate the potential of Vietnamese consumer finance, especially with attempts to unburden the system of its bad debt. StoxPlus, a leading financial and business information corporation in Vietnam, valued the market in 2016 at US$26.55 billion, with an annual growth rate of 30-40%.

Japan’s interest is good news for Vietnam’s budding financial sector, which could do with an injection of experience from more established players.

So, there is reason to be optimistic. However, participants at the M&A Forum stressed that foreign-ownership limits and the lack of clear regulations in areas attractive to big investors are still obstacles to fulfilling the country’s potential.

Dearth of details

Foreign investors often bring up the subject of transparency, which remains a big issue. The opaque investment environment can complicate negotiations in Vietnam, and this is particularly true when dealing with equitised state-owned enterprises. Investors are required to make substantial upfront commitments in terms of time and money at the early stages of the bidding process, shouldering significant risks to enter the market.

Used to dealing with more sophisticated operations, the financial statements of Vietnamese companies can also fall short of investors’ expectations. There is certainly a need for advisors and consultants, who can help with valuations and due diligence, offsetting some of the risk involved.

Until Vietnamese firms grow large enough to regularly participate in substantial cross-border M&A deals, foreign partners will need to make sufficient preparations when it comes to tax and legal requirements. Over time, Vietnamese companies will become more aware of the requirements set forward by investors in M&A transactions, which will generate more deal flow as well as shorten the transaction process.

Cause for cautious optimism

These complaints aside, the overall impression at the M&A Forum was positive, with some predicting that M&A activities in Vietnam would double or triple over the next five to ten years. With some adjustments it’s certainly possible to surpass 2016’s deal value in the short term, especially if the growth of the consumer retail sector continues to attract the attention of Korean investors. Raising the foreign-ownership limits in Vietnamese banks could also prove to be a tipping point for some big transactions.

To maintain momentum over the long term, however, more significant adjustments will be needed. The issues of equitising SOEs, state divestment and the foreign ownership cap will become more urgent as time goes on. The government will need to respond to suggestions and support legal reforms if the country is to attract more M&A capital. Crucially, the efficiency and transparency of the M&A market will need to be improved for foreign investors. Policymakers have promised that further legal reforms are underway and the government is pushing forward with state divestment. Let’s hope they keep to their commitments.