World's youngest stock market struggles in Myanmar
Denis D. Gray
The day's trading is about to begin on the world's youngest stock exchange, and the MYANPIX index and opening share prices flash across an electronic screen, but barely a footfall or a voice are heard within the cavernous, colonial era building in the bustling heart of Myanmar's commercial capital.
A gilded bell hangs silently above the almost empty floor, engraved with a single word: "Success."
Not yet. Only three companies are listed on the board and at the end of the day just 7,221 shares were traded, compared with nearly 839 million the same day on the New York Stock Exchange.
Since the YSE, a joint venture between Myanmar, Japan's Daiwa Institute of Research and the Japan Exchange Group, began trading in March, only 20,000 investors have ventured into the market. Regulators complain that those who do take the plunge rely largely on rumors, herd psychology and even the stars.
Martin Zhang, an account executive with KBZ Stirling Coleman Securities, said one client offered him an astrological chart to help guide his investment decisions.
The Amsterdam stock market, the world's first, opened its doors 428 years ago. The New York Stock Exchange, the world's largest, was born in 1817, Thet Htun Oo, senior manager of the Yangon exchange, reminded a recent group of visiting journalists.
"We are only a seven-month-old baby," he said.
A half-century of harsh military rule in this Southeast Asian country of 55 million brought economic ruin and isolation from the international community and global financial trends.
But Myanmar remains a cornucopia of natural resources, and it is welcoming foreign investment as one of Asia's last economic frontiers. The former British colony's economic growth is forecast at 8 percent this year, among the fastest in the region.
Just a week after trading began on the Yangon exchange, a democratically elected government headed by former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi took power. Since then, the United States has lifted nearly all of the economic sanctions it had imposed on the former military regime, freeing up remittances from abroad which experts say may help fuel the market.
"We shall see. It's conditional. If our economy prospers, the stock market will also do well," said Khin Maung Nyo, an economist and author. For the time being, he advised caution for "Mr. Average." With the three listed companies mostly trading below their initial price levels, many investors have fared poorly.
The first stock to be traded, First Myanmar Investment, is owned by real estate tycoon Serge Pun and is one of the country's biggest public companies. It made its debut at 40,000 kyat a share (US$31 at current exchange rates). On Nov. 11 it finished at 16,000 kyat (about $12), despite having seen its profit soar in the past year.
"People watch TV and read novels about stock markets and think they can get rich overnight, but now they are beginning to realize that it's not that easy," said Khin Maung Nyo.
Many investors blindly follow friends and neighbors into the market and when it tumbles they "all go over the cliff together," said Zhang of KBZ. The firm's operations chief, Jonathan Lin, says he suspects some first consult fortune tellers. After all, this is a country where past leaders made crucial political decisions only after seeing their favorite soothsayers.
KBZ and four other brokerage firms handle trading electronically. That is one reason for the lack of activity on the trading floor of the 1939, neo-classical Yangon Stock Exchange building, with its imposing white Ionic columns.
Traditionally, Burmese have stashed their wealth in gold and jewelry. The wealthiest, like Serge Pun, have headed to Singapore to list their companies. The country's two-digit lottery is wildly popular with speculators. But most people in Yangon's streets respond with puzzled looks when asked about the stock market.
Thet Htun Oo of YSE said his staff are touring the country and using social media to urge would-be investors to "do their homework" and invest for long-term gains.
Myanmar is drafting legislation to allow foreign investors into the market and to permit continuous trading, rather than the current two daily auctions. A fourth listing, the First Private Bank, is scheduled before the year's end, and Thet Htun Oo said he anticipates five newcomers on the board during each of the next five years. As the market grows, institutional investors, who so far have kept away, are expected to step in.
The hope is that Yangon's bourse will emulate Vietnam's highly successful stock markets, rather than the lackluster exchanges in Laos and Cambodia. All were launched since 2005.
Having leapfrogged older systems, Myanmar's exchange has the latest technology. Soon, investors will be able to make trades on their mobile telephones.
"We could grow very fast but we need government regulators to render proper support and understand the value of capital markets to the country," said Rudi Rolles, managing director of KBZ in Yangon.
Rolles, a veteran of stock markets in emerging economies, said the government could help, for example, by offering tax breaks to companies that list shares on the exchange.
He and other market boosters say the exchange should play a central role in raising capital to help grow the economy.
"The market is in its infancy," Rolles said. "But it will develop in the long run, and it will be successful."
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