US businesses cautiously optimistic about Asean, survey finds

American companies remain generally optimistic about business prospects in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region, according to an annual survey by the American Chambers of Commerce in Asean member countries.

The annual Asean Business Outlook Survey, released Wednesday by the Asean chambers and the US Chamber of Commerce, surveyed 471 senior executives representing US companies in all ten Asean nations

More than 70% reported that their company’s level of trade and investment in Asean has increased over the past two years, and 86% of respondents expect it to increase over the next five years.

Despite investor confidence, optimism has faded over the years. More than half (53%) of respondents said Asean markets have become more important to worldwide revenues over the past two years, down ten percentage points lower than reported two years earlier.

In addition, 66% of the executives this year expect Asean to become more important in terms of worldwide revenues over the next two years; while still high, this is seven percentage points lower than two years earlier.

Darren Buckley, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. (Bangkok Post file photo)

In Thailand, 44% of respondents said that Asean markets have increased in importance in the past two years and 61% expect this importance to increase in the next two years. In terms of business expansion, 57% of the polled executives in Thailand reported that their companies plan to expand in the country, while half expect their workforce to increase in 2016.

The downturn in investor optimism that was noted across Asean has been plaguing Thailand as well.

The survey tracked US investor satisfaction with 16 facets of the Thai business environment from 2006-2015 and, in the past five years, investors’ satisfaction with the business climate in Thailand has decreased in 14 out of the 16 areas, sometimes by more than 20%.

By comparison, investor confidence has steadily risen Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia.

“These results indicate that competitiveness is not something you achieve once and enjoy forever; remaining competitive is a process that requires a firm commitment and continuous tweaking and adjusting of laws and regulations to build and support a favourable business environment,” Darren Buckley, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand, said in a statement.

“In order to remain attractive to investors, Thailand will have to keep in step with neighbouring countries as they open their economies and entice investors with attractive incentives,” he added.

Concerns and impediments to growth in Asean include corruption, burdensome laws and regulations, lack of transparency, poor quality of infrastructure, and customs procedures.

In Thailand, obstacles cited include the Customs Bureau and the government’s failure to seek input on new laws and regulations from the private sector before they are implemented.