Policymakers, economists and private sector movers and shakers yesterday convened at the Asian financial hub, Singapore, to present the lucrative opportunities for foreign investors across retail, industrial and consumer sectors in Bangladesh.
“Today, I can stand in front of you confidently and say that we will not disappoint you,” Gowher Rizvi, the prime minister's international affairs adviser, told an audience of about 240 investors at the third Bangladesh Investment Summit, Asia, held in the city-state.
The daylong event, which was sponsored by Standard Chartered and City Bank, highlighted the country's macroeconomic fundamentals, growth sectors, investment outlook, the associated challenges and the potential mitigants for the relevant investment. Brac Bank and Brac EPL were co-sponsors of the event, while DFDL was an associate sponsor. FinanceAsia, the continent's leading financial publishing company, organised the event.
Rizvi said all the elements that investors look for are present in Bangladesh.
“Great many things are happening in Bangladesh right now. The fundamentals are right. Your investment is safe. The returns proportionate to risks are very attractive. There is macroeconomic stability along with policy continuity and predictability.”
Furthermore, the country is providing a host of incentives by way of fiscal concessions, tax holidays and so on, which, if not better, are on par with other countries, he said. Barring a few areas, there are no restrictions on investment in Bangladesh, with 100 percent ownership allowed in almost every sector. The country allows full repatriation of profits and easy exits.
Besides, as Bangladesh is a signatory to almost all international treaties and conventions, the investment is protected -- often a concern for foreigners when considering putting in money in a third-world country. Rizvi, an internationally renowned political scientist, also addressed the issue of political stability, another concern of foreign investors.
He said the economy was marred by political turmoil in the past couple of years. Still, economic indicators have improved year-on-year, instead of being deteriorated.
“Yes, we are noisy. Yes, we are excitable. We wash our dirty linen in public but please take it from me: political stability will not be affected. At the end of the day, we are a liberal, plural, secular, democratic society.”
There are enough safety valves in the system to prevent things from getting out of hand, the foreign affairs advisor said.
Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, also touched upon the subject in a panel discussion, styled 'Bangladesh Today'.
He said the country has turned political stability into a growth factor, as it has expanded despite political instability in the past couple of years.
“We have never defaulted in paying our sovereign debt, on repatriation of investors' money or in any standard of financial consideration. If we can do with political instability, then what's your problem? You invest, make your profit, and take your money out.”
Anam cited the narrative of Singapore, which could very well be that of Bangladesh. Nobody expected Singapore to succeed when it was thrown out of the Malaysian unity in the mid-1960s. “I remember this absolutely fabulous picture of Lee Kuan Yew taking up the challenge and saying, 'I'm going to show the world'.”
“We have huge population, limited land and resources, but that is half the story. We have already overcome those problems,” said Anam.
Bangladesh has grown 6 percent for over half a decade now, which speaks of the magnificent nature of its economic stability. “Bangladesh is a country where honey is not pouring from the sky but it is growing from the ground,” he added.
Abrar Anwar, chief executive of Standard Chartered Bangladesh, said the opportunities for investment in the country far outweigh the current challenges.
The British bank is a major investor in the country and is moving forward confidently by navigating around the challenges to continue to build a sustainable business for its shareholders, he said.
At the end of the day, investments need to make sense and investors look forward to a decent return, security of their investments and ability to repatriate dividend and capital when required, Anwar said.
“We have been able to do that, and I am sure, all of you who are contemplating investment in Bangladesh, you would also be able to do that in due course.”
He said the country is at its inflection point of development. “If appropriate levels of investment can be channelled into the critical sectors, it can scale great heights.”
The banker said there is huge demand for basic infrastructure like energy, power, ports, roads, bridges, highways, telecom and broadband in Bangladesh and foreign investors can do well by looking at those sectors.
“The current infrastructure is finding it difficult to cope with the demand generated by growth pressure. On the flip side, it is an opportunity too.”
He particularly singled out the power sector, saying it needs $25-30 billion of investment in the next 5-7 years. ICT and pharmaceuticals also hold great promise, Anwar added.
Pal Stette, director of project and corporate finance of Telenor that owns 55.8 percent of Grameenphone, shared the Norwegian telecom giant's experience in Bangladesh.
In less than two decades, Grameenphone, the largest mobile phone operator in the country, has logged in turnover of more than $1 billion and is producing very good margins, with EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation ) in excess of 50 percent, he said.