Foreign direct investment in the Lao People's Democratic Republic: Challenges and prospects
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Foreign direct investment in the Lao People's Democratic Republic: Challenges and prospects
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Thaksin Phimpamot 
Occupation: Master of Economics
Affiliation: RUDN University
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Irina V. Karzanova
Occupation: Associate Professor, RUDN University
Affiliation: RUDN University
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow

In the article the inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into the economy of the Lao is examined, in particular, the evolution of the policy, methods and rules of FDI attraction and regulation, as well as the dynamics and sectoral structure of FDI inflows. In result of Lao’s targeted proactive government policy, the FDI inflow since 2005 have risen substantially, owing primarily to domestic and foreign investments in hydropower and mining. Since the 3rd five-year National Plan for 1991-1995, the promotion of FDI has become a priority for the government. Since 2005, the annual rate of economic growth has exceeded 5%, and by 2020, the poverty of the people has dropped significantly. Through continuous, inclusive and sustainable economic growth the country managed to get out of “least developed countries” status by 2020. The Lao PDR government continues to improve the legal framework and law enforcement practice in the field of FDI.

China, Thailand and Vietnam lead the investment process among the 10 most active foreign investors. Lao government clearly defined the desirable industries for foreign direct investment, which meet national interests - hydropower, mining, infrastructure facilities, industrial and agricultural enterprises, tourism.  In this article an overview of the most important FDI sectors in Laos is provided.

Authors have come to conclusion that the scope, volume and focus of implemented  and ongoing FDI projects has benefited the Laos in terms of socioeconomic growth, foreign exchange earnings, job creation, as well as modern equipment, technology and skills transfer. The attention of the Lao government to practical details of foreign investment in important national projects contributes to successful use of external resources for national goals.

Laos, foreign direct investment, economic development, investment promotion law, special economic zones, concessions
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2 In the past century, foreign direct investment, FDI, has been an important driver of the global economy. In developing countries, where there is a shortage of domestic investment resources, foreign capital flows allow narrowing the investment gap and, therefore, FDI is progressively being recognized as a positive factor in host countries’ economic development [1]. In national best practices, foreign capital flows are accompanied by the transfer of technology, organizational and managerial skills, and the promotion of exports to international markets. Various countries are striving to create favorable conditions for attracting FDI as a priority of their policies. They are reducing restrictions on inward FDI and actively liberalizing their FDI regimes in order to provide integrated services that will facilitate the activities of foreign investors.
3 In recent decades, FDI has played an important role in the economic development of the Lao PDR. The economic transition to a market-driven economy has attracted the attention of international investors. Copper, gold, silver, zinc, tin, barite, gypsum, coal, and sapphires are among the abundant mineral resources in the Lao PDR. With only 30% of its potential explored, and with at least 650 locations identified as potentially containing metal ores, activity in the mining sector is expected to increase in the near future.
4 The hydropower generation potential of Laos is enormous and with large and long-term foreign investment pouring in, the Lao PDR's ambition to be the "battery" of South-East Asia could be realized soon. Laos also has a very attractive tourism potential. It has large stretches of beautiful wilderness and isolated villages of traditional ethnic communities, as well as two UNESCO World Heritage Sites - the ancient capital of Luang Prabang and the Angkor Wut Phu temple complex. Laos, with its gorgeous natural beauty and many other unique attractions, can become one of the most popular tourist destinations. The government has made sustainable tourism development in Laos one of its strategic priorities.
5 Laos has a mixed economy in which the government since 1986 has initiated gradual economic and business reforms to liberalize its domestic markets. The Lao Economic Reform is influenced by the Chinese and Vietnamese models in the sense that it introduced market-oriented reforms while maintaining a high degree of government control and attracting foreign direct investment (FDI).
6 The government carries out centralized state planning: it draws up and monitors the implementation of five-year national plans for socio-economic development.
7 The 1st National Social and Economic Development Plan of the Lao PDR was launched in 1975, and since then, economic development has been guided and coordinated by five-year plans. In 1986, the government announced the New Economic Mechanism, which was gradually expanded to include various reforms aimed at creating an environment conducive to private sector activity. The country has introduced reforms to liberalize the economy, stimulate growth and enhance the business climate. Prices set by market forces have replaced government-set prices. Farmers were given the right to own land and sell their crops on the open market. State-owned enterprises have been given more decision-making powers, while most of their subsidies and price advantages have been eliminated. The government set the managed floating exchange rate system, removed trade barriers, replaced import barriers with tariffs, and provided direct access to imports and credit to private firms. Since the 3rd five-year National Plan for 1991-1995, the promotion of FDI has become a priority for the government.
8 The recent 8th plan was implemented in 2016-2020 [2]. During this period, all efforts of the government were focused on ensuring political stability, peace and order in society and reducing poverty in the country. The authorities have recognized domestic and foreign private investment as a critical engine of economic growth and development.
9 By 2020, poverty has dropped significantly: in 2020, the GDP per capita in Laos achieved PPP $7,805 (current S2,630), the unemployment rate was 1%, and GDP growth rates in 2010-2020 ranged from 5.5% to 8.5% [3]. With continuous, inclusive and sustainable economic growth Laos has succeeded in graduating from the status of “least developed countries” by 2020. Economic development is accelerated through the efficient management and rational use of natural resources, as well as the use of Lao's competitive advantages in international trade and cooperation.
10 The first Investment Law of 1988 opened up most sectors to foreign participation, including agriculture, forestry and industry. Since then, the law has been revised considerably: the Law on Promotion and Management of Foreign Investment, enacted in 1994, was amended in both 2004 and 2009 to further promote Laos as an investment destination, provide more incentives, streamline regulations and reduce taxes. The latest amendment of 2017 consisted in the merger of once separate laws on domestic and foreign investment.
12 Lao economy has performed relatively well in the midst of the global financial crisis (2007-2008), supported by higher than initially forecasted commodity prices and significant expansion in public outlays which have acted as a fiscal stimulus. The impact of the global financial crisis was felt through declining commodity export earnings, reduced FDI inflows and remittance income, as well as a decline in non-resource exports.
13 The economy of the Lao PDR has grown rapidly for over a decade. Economic growth rate averaged about 7% over 2011-2019 (see Figure 1) [4].

15 Figure 1. GDP growth of Lao PDR.
16 Source: World Bank database [4].
17 In 2011, despite the fact that the domestic and international environment faced various challenges, the economic performance of Laos continued to demonstrate high and sustainable growth rates, reaching 8%. The expansion and strong growth of the Lao economy was mainly driven by the growth of the industrial sector, namely mining, electricity and manufacturing, as well as the development of the service sector and agriculture. In addition, strong growth in domestic and foreign investment, stimulated by the favorable conditions created in the country, has supported growth. The large volume of funds contributed by the banking system stimulated the manufacturing, construction and other sectors. Since 2011, the GDP growth of the Lao economy has slowed due to the slow pace of the global economy with an average of 2.9% [4].
18 2019 was a challenging year for Laos, with economic growth slower than in previous years as a result of lower mining and quarrying and slower economic growth of Lao's trading and investment partners. Moreover, Laos faced natural disasters across the country and government budget constraints. However, due to the continued inflow of FDI in hydropower, infrastructure development, in particular the Laos-China railway project and the manufacturing industry, the Lao economy grew by 5.46% in 2019. A significant contribution to growth was due to an increase of 2.72% in the service sector, accounting for 40.18% of total GDP, 2% in the industrial sector (35.72% of GDP) and 0.18% in the agricultural sector.
19 The Lao government hopes to strengthen economic ties with bordering countries, such as Burma, China, Thailand, and Vietnam to transform Laos from “land-locked” to “land-linked” country. This will help to increase Laos’s agricultural, industrial goods and light industry exports, as well as electricity exports to its more industrialized neighbors. Laos also foresees major growth opportunities from the China-Laos railway Kunming - Vientiane, scheduled to be finished and operational by the end of 2021.
20 Lao's economic progress and expansion of trade continue to be hampered by a shortage of domestic workers with technical skills, inadequate education and health systems, and poor, albeit improving, transport infrastructure. Judiciary institutions as well as regulatory organizations remain severely underdeveloped. Despite recent efforts and some improvements, corruption is still widespread and is a major problem.
22 With the establishment of the “New Economic Mechanism” (NEM) in 1986, the Lao PDR started to open itself to the rest of the globe and since then worked to improve its business environment in order to make the country more investor-friendly.

24 Figure 2. Value of FDI inflows to Laos, $ mln.
25 Source: UNCTAD database [5].
26 At the beginning of the economic reforms in Laos, the inflow of foreign direct investment to the country was small. According to The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) database, inflows of FDI into Laos were only $6.9 mln in 1991. They increased in 1995, 1996 and 1997 after Laos amended its Investment Law in 1994. This increase in FDI in Laos was associated with a global economic boom that boosted FDI globally. Later, the 1997-1999 Asian financial crisis negatively affected FDI flows to Asian countries, including Laos for several years. Inflows of FDI have grown substantially since 2005, mainly driven by investments in hydropower and mining (see Figure 2).
27 The country is rich in natural resources, especially the water resources of the Mekong River Basin, whose hydropower potential is estimated to be 20 times higher than current electricity production. Recorded FDI inflows accounted for $28 million in 2005, $228 mln in 2008, $1.3 bln in 2018 and $557 mln in 2019. The fall in FDI in 2019 reflected the volatility and discretionary nature of foreign investment [5].
28 In 2014-2019, some amendments to laws favorable to investment were adopted and new energy and service projects were launched. The inclusion of provisions that benefited investors into Law amendments and new documents, such as the Enterprise Act of 2014, the Law on Commercial Banks of 2019, and the Law on Investment Promotion of 2017, was a demonstration of the country's determination to put things in order in this area.
29 The Law on Investment Promotion of 2017 replaced the Law on Investment promotion of 2009. The new Law aims to facilitate investments in Laos by clarifying procedures of business proposals and applications, license issuance, and government approval. Greater clarity is expected for eligibility rights and incentives for business operators, as well as the timeframe for business applications processing.
30 According to the amended Law on Land Law of 2020, foreign individuals and foreign-invested companies, including joint-ventures, cannot own land in Laos, but they can lease land from Lao citizens (foreign individuals for 20 years, foreign investors - for 30 years) or lease from the government of Laos (foreign individuals for 30 years, foreign investors - for 50 years), or receive land concessions from the government of Laos (foreign individuals for 30 years, foreign investors - for 50 years).
31 Foreign investors are entitled to own structures and developments that they build or purchase on leased or concession land. However, title to such structures and developments will be transferred automatically to the lessor of the land in which such assets are situated upon the expiration of the lease or concession term. The new law for the first time opens the possibility for foreign nationals to own and invest in certain immoveable properties in Laos.
32 The amended Law on Land permits foreign nationals to own structures on Lao land. Specifically, foreign nationals are now allowed to own apartments in condominiums whose construction was authorized by the government [6].
33 According to data on FDI in Laos by the Ministry of Planning and Investment of the Lao PDR, which differs slightly from the data of the UNCTAD database used in Figure 21 in 1989-2019 53 countries invested in Laos in 5,978 projects, and the FDI stock amounted to $23 bln by 2019 (see Table 1).
1. The discrepancies are quite large, most likely due to statistical errors related to the incompleteness of the international information and different methodologies used by the two organizations.
34 Table 1. Top 10 FDI sources inflows to Laos from 1989 to 2019
1989-2014 2015-2019
Ranking Country Value, $ mln Country Number of projects Value, $ mln
1 China 5,396 China 50 4,853
2 Thailand 4,489 Thailand 21 1,135
3 Vietnam 3,109 Vietnam 18 693
4 S-Korea 751 Hong Kong 5 477
5 France 491 Malaysia 4 440
6 Japan 438 France 1 440
7 Netherlands 434 Netherlands 1 391
8 Malaysia 382 Japan 4 82
9 Norway 346 Sweden 5 70
10 UK 198 UK 1 46
36 Source: [7].
37 FDI to Laos in 1989-2014 ($8.969 bln total value) were concentrated in hydropower and mining sectors (52%), service sector (19%), agriculture sector (12%), manufacturing sector (10%) and construction sector (3%). In 2015-2019 hydropower and mining continued to be the main destination for FDI inflows (45%), while the construction sector accounted for 29% [8]. Hydropower and mining projects account for 80% of foreign investment accumulated over the past ten years. Transport infrastructure, tourism and large agroforestry projects are also attracting new investors. In addition, the government is seeking to integrate Laos into regional supply chains by developing light industry to make the country a low-cost export base.
38 In 2021, major investment projects in Laos will be implemented in hydropower, mining, services, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.
39 The hydropower sector projects:
40 The main hydropower projects in Laos, implemented with the attraction of foreign direct investment from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Norway and the Netherlands: Xayaburi Dam on Mekong River (under construction, the project value is $3.8 bln); Nam Theun 2 Dam on Nam Theun River (2010, $1.45 bln); Nam Ngum 2 Dam on Nam Theun River (2011, the project value is $97 mln); Theun-Hinboun Dam on Name Theun River (2013, the project value is $260 mln); Nam Ngiep 1 Dam on Ngiep River (under construction, the project value is $900 mln). Despite being a relatively cheap and low-carbon source of energy, large-scale hydropower bears significant environmental costs, because dams obstruct the fundamental processes of river ecosystems. This issue is widely discussed in Laos and neighboring countries and the Lao government is taking steps to mitigate the potential damage [8-13].
41 The mining sector projects:
42 The main foreign investors in the mining of Laos are China, Thailand and Australia. They invested in Hongsa coal mine (the project value is $3.71 blnn); Sepon copper and gold mine; Phu Kham Copper mine, Phu bia mining. All of these are large-scale projects [14-17].
43 The services sector projects
44 The service sector in the Lao PDR is still at an early stage of development. Traditionally, the country has been a rural country with an agrarian economy. Only recently has it ventured into the development of manufacturing, tourism, international trade and modern services such as finance and information and communication technologies (ICT). There are now many foreign banks located in Vientiane, including those from Thailand, China, Malaysia and Taiwan. The services sector is expected to expand further as it progresses in developing infrastructure services, improving the education and training system, and developing tourism in Laos [18].
45 The agricultural sector projects
46 The leading investors in agricultural projects are companies from China, Thailand, and Vietnam, neighboring countries, which have long-standing ties with Laos. Recently, Japan, South Korea, India, Scandinavia, Kuwait have increased their investments. These countries frequently lack arable land and water. FDI in agriculture addresses the rapidly growing demand for agricultural products and focuses on the cultivation of rubber, bananas, sugar cane, coffee, cassava and rice in Laos.
47 The manufacturing sector projects
48 Foreign companies, attracted by the low cost of Laos’s resources, invest in the manufacturing sector of the country, organizing production for further sale in the region and abroad. The major manufacturing companies investing in Laos, to name a few, are: Japanese automotive and interior component manufacturer Toyota Boshoku invested $5.6 mln to build a plant; the automotive Korean holdings LVMC installed in Laos car assembly lines, launched a new car brand and a new pick-up model, invested in car dealerships and retail; Italian company Fine Wines invested in wineries, breweries, food, beverage and tobacco; Japanese company Nikon invested $6.3 mln in the production of high-quality cameras [19; 20].
49 The construction sector projects
50 The main construction FDI project is the Kunming-Vientiane Railway (K-V), which is the part of the Kunming-Singapore multi-country rail network (so called “Pan-Asia Railway”), and an anchor investment of the Chinese government's Belt and Road initiative. The K-V railway will directly link China’s southern border with Laos, enabling further linkages with Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar. The K-V railway project is a $5.95 bln joint venture with 70% Chinese equity and 30% Lao PDR equity. Potential benefits associated with the K-V Railway for Laos consist in shorter transportation time, associated with better road, rail, and shipping linkages [21, 22].
51 Since 2001, China, Vietnam and Thailand have become the dominant foreign investors in Laos (see Table 1). China and Vietnam have good relations with Laos, somewhat similar political systems and economic policies, which, in addition to the economic rationale, contributes to a rapid increase in FDI from these two countries to Laos.
52 Foreign investors from China, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia investing in special economic zones (SEZs) have begun using Laos as a low-cost export base for selling goods to the region, as well as to the United States and Europe. Light industry development will allow to Laos integrate into regional supply chains. Improving infrastructure could facilitate this process, and make Laos destination for regional manufacturers looking to diversify existing manufacturing bases in Thailand, Vietnam and China.
53 Until recently, most of China's investment went to hydroelectric dams, mining and forestry, but now it is diversifying and goes to real estate and transportation projects. Apart from the railroad between China, Laos and Thailand, probably the most high-profile project being pursued by Chinese investors in Laos is the That Luang Marsh Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which is being built near the capital city of Vientiane. This development, with a budget of $1.6 bln, is taking place on 365 hectares that will host a large residential area, public parks and green spaces, a commercial center, hotels, shopping centers and entertainment venues. The government and the developer present this SEZ as a showpiece for all SEZs in Laos.
54 Besides this, China had invested in several big urban construction and manufacturing business projects: That Luang Lake Specific Economic Zone, established in 2011 (cost $1.6 bln); Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, established in 2007 (cost $86.6 mln); Boten Beautiful Land Special Economic Zone, established in 2003 (cost $500 mln); Saysetha Development Zone, established in 2010 (cost $128 mln) with development of agricultural products industry, wood manufacturing industry, light industry, tourism-services, electric appliance manufacturing industry, machinery industry, and new energy industry [23].
55 The new Special Economic Zones in Vientiane and Savannakhet have attracted major manufacturers from Europe, North America, and Japan. For example, Nikon, a Japanese multinational corporation headquartered in Tokyo, has decided to establish a new factory in the Savan-Seno SEZ to reinforce its digital SLR camera manufacturing organization and reduce costs; Toyota and other leading companies from the region are also relocating their factories to Laos. In addition, 806 companies invested in the zones, of which 26.34% of investment - in the industrial sector, 25.26% - in trade and 48.4% - in the service sector. As of 2018, the value of exports of manufactured goods from the zones was $1.75 bln. In addition, the zones have paid more than $ 40.833 million to the state budget in the form of various taxes and fees. 55,771 jobs have been created in the zones, 12,596 of which are for Lao workers and 43,175 for foreign workers [24; 25].
56 The Lao PDR serves as a land bridge between the dynamic Southeast Asian market and China's vast market. With the Greater Mekong Sub-region program boosting infrastructure development, particularly roads and railways, foreign investors may benefit from a better and freer flow of goods and people within the sub-region.
58 Lao PDR hopes to boost competitiveness and emerge as a stronger economy in Southeast Asia, transforming itself into one of the most countries in the region, offering diverse business opportunities to both domestic and foreign investors. Laos hopes to become the convenient gateway to ASEAN markets.
59 Policy framework underwent a significant evolution in the last ten years. In 2009, investors had the option of investing in one of three categories of businesses: general business, concession business, operations for the growth of special economic zones (or specialized economic zones). Concession business covers land concessions, minerals, resources, aviation, telecommunications, insurers, and financial institutions.
60 The investment promotion law has been revised in 2016. Since then, foreign investment consisted of the following forms: a wholly domestic or foreign-owned investment; a joint venture between domestic and foreign investors [26].
61 The new Law on Investment Promotion provides an exhaustive list of key sectors prioritized by the government, such as advanced technology, scientific research, and research and development; ecotourism; education and training centers; construction of modern hospitals and medical equipment; investment, services, and development of public infrastructure in city centers; microfinance; and modern department stores.
62 Each sector will be afforded benefits and incentives in accordance with the location of their activities stipulated for different “Zones”. Zone 1 covers areas that are poor, remote, and lack infrastructure to facilitate investments. Zone 2 covers areas that have good socioeconomic infrastructure, which can facilitate investments. Zone 3 covers Special Economic Zones (SEZ). With the exception of SEZs covered by other regulations, the government will grant a profit tax exemption ranging from 4 to 15 years for companies in Zones 1 and 2. Moreover, to provide greater transparency, investors who have been granted specific exemptions may request certificates formalizing their incentives from the One-Stop-Service Unit as a form of written proof.
63 The local free market economy combined with the strong state control mechanism makes FDI partially complex. Despite the official government policy, which is very welcoming of FDI, several obstacles remain: the lengthy procedure of projects approval and required investment authorization issuance, the overlapping of jurisdictions between the different ministries, time-consuming procedures of legal procedures, inequalities in tax benefits provided, high tariff costs and the poor-quality, though improving, infrastructure. Furthermore, corruption is widespread. All these factors negatively affect FDI inflows.
64 According to the Doing Business report (2020) published by the World Bank, Laos ranks 154th in the “Ease of doing business” and 181st in the “Starting a business” out of 190 countries in the 2020 (see Table 2).
65 Table 2. Doing Business Indices for Lao PDR and neighboring countries
Laos Cambodia China Myanmar Thailand Vietnam
Ease of doing business 154 144 31 165 21 70
Starting a business 181 187 5 70 47 115
67 Source: [27]
69 An analysis of results of foreign investment in the Lao PDR in 1991-2019 shows that FDI has contributed to the development of the Lao economy towards a market economy and its deeper integration in the regional and international economy. The 1990s saw a remarkable increase in the world FDI because of liberalization of FDI regulations in most part of the world. Developing country governments were driven by the need to attract foreign investment by offering investment incentives and removing major obstacles to foreign investment. Over the past decade, the flow of foreign direct investment to Laos has increased significantly. Laos has learned to attract FDI to support its economic reforms and used them for economic development.
70 FDI has benefited the country in terms of socioeconomic growth, foreign exchange earnings, job creation, as well as modern equipment, technology and skills transfer. FDI were embedded in well-defined Lao national laws that protect national interests. Many modern production and service enterprises, which produce goods and services for the domestic and international markets, were built in the country. In general, FDI, influencing the growth of the Lao economy, contributed to the reduction of poverty. To attract significant FDI and at the same time protect national interests in the use of FDI, Laos needs to be guided by its national priorities, modernize infrastructure, develop human resources and improve the legal environment related to FDI.


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