BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 20, 2000 ISSUE
INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS

Never Mind the Snail's Pace. This Is Capitalism


The Ho Chi Minh City Securities Trading Center is almost eerily quiet. With less than an hour to the closing bell, several traders are reading newspapers; others wander outside for a smoke. Suddenly, a fax machine comes to life and spits out an order. A staffer keys it into a terminal. A minute later, the trade flashes across the big screen.

Welcome to Vietnam's fledgling stock exchange. Just three months old, it boasts a market capitalization of some $48 million and average daily turnover of $70,000. Only four companies have listed so far, all of them formerly state-owned enterprises--a maker of air conditioners, a telecom cable manufacturer, a freight-forwarding company, and a tissue-paper exporter. The market is open two hours a day, three days a week.

Hold the chuckles. Despite its modest beginnings, the exchange represents a step forward for Vietnam, where most people still keep their savings under the mattress. The government hopes the market will hasten the privatization of the nation's cash-starved state-owned companies--essential if Vietnam is to move to a true market economy.

Overseas fund managers have been sounding out the six local brokerages, though none have invested so far. Jonathon Waugh, chief representative of Jardine Fleming Vietnam, says they'll take the plunge once the bourse reaches critical mass; at least 10 new companies will list over the next year. For now, says Waugh, foreign investors, who account for 12% of the market, are mostly venture capitalists.

To list, a company must show two years of profits and boast minimum capital of $700,000. Fund manager Dominic Scriven says that he has uncovered some 40 companies that meet the requirements. ''The market is good,'' he says. ''The settlement system works, and prices don't go all over the place.''

For her part, Thai Uyen Phuong, a broker from state-owned BIDV Securities Co., would like to see more action on the trading floor. ''It gets kind of quiet,'' she says. ''We hope more companies list.'' Vietnam's future may well depend on it.

By Frederik Balfour in Ho Chi Minh City

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Never Mind the Snail's Pace. This Is Capitalism



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