28 September 2021

Appeal in place – Vietnam is well-positioned to continue hosting a vibrant M&A space

Huong Trinh

The article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of Vietnam Economic Times

Huong Trinh

Managing Director, Head of Ho Chi Minh, BDA Partners

Despite Vietnam experiencing its fourth wave of Covid-19, merger and acquisition (M&A) activities will continue to remain strong. Since the beginning of this year, we at BDA Ho Chi Minh City have seen strong interest from large regional PEs (private equity firms) looking for sizable transactions. We are also observing strong demand for growth capital and exits from both founder-backed and private equity-owned companies, evidenced by numerous current live deals and strong pipelines/opportunities for 2021.

Vietnam’s macroeconomic fundamentals remain strong. In the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s revised forecast released in July, the country is still on track to remain the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia this year, with projected growth of 6.5 percent. Vietnam also has one of the fastest-growing middle-class populations, with rising discretionary spending power, leading to high pent-up demand for goods and services that will contribute to economic recovery as the country opens up again later this year.  

Key industries predicted to grow strongly

In general, Vietnam’s economy has remained resilient and maintained good momentum for growth across industries despite the recent surge of Covid-19. In addition to consumer and retail which has always been one of the most active sectors in Vietnam and is expected to rebound strongly in 2022 thanks to the recovery of consumer confidence, the following sectors have been attracting a lot of interest. 

We believe that IT & Technology and especially the internet-related segment will achieve the strongest growth in Vietnam, and that there will be a strong pipeline of opportunities for the sector in 2021 and upcoming years. Difficulties caused by the pandemic have driven growth in demand across all industries for technology-related services and digital solutions that help businesses function normally. In a post-pandemic world, there will be a continued push for swift digitalization, and M&As will be the fastest way for businesses to achieve this goal. Also, Vietnam’s internet economy has been growing rapidly during Covid-19, and we expect this trend to continue as there have been long-term changes to consumer habits and dynamics. The pandemic, for all its negative impacts on health, society, and economy, is propelling the growth of e-commerce and digital finance in Vietnam, paving the way for the country to fulfill its digital potential. According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Vietnam’s e-commerce market grew 18 percent year-on-year in 2020 to $11.8 billion, while traffic on e-commerce platforms was 150 percent higher than in 2019.

Pharmaceuticals is an industry that has attracted a lot of interest from foreign investors in recent years, with notable transactions including Taisho’s acquisition of a majority stake in DHG Pharma and SK’s recent investment in Imexpharm. According to BMI Research, Vietnam’s pharmaceutical industry could reach $7.7 billion in 2021 and $16.1 billion in 2026. A growing middle class, urbanization, and a young population are driving domestic demand for all aspects of healthcare, including expenditures on pharmaceuticals. As a defensive sector, pharmaceuticals will continue to achieve strong growth as Vietnam transitions out of the pandemic period. The industry is set to benefit greatly from the government’s national strategy to promote domestic manufacturing. To compete with imports, M&As with foreign strategic investors will continue to be crucial for local manufacturers, enabling them to meet global pharmaceutical standards through transfers of technology, R&D, and management expertise.

Renewable energy has also become an interesting sector for M&A activity in Vietnam over recent years, and we expect deal flow to resume as the country gradually opens up. With a rapidly growing economy, Vietnam has been at risk of power shortages as demand exceeds supply due to a lack of power infrastructure, and capital injections into the development of renewable energy could provide a good solution. Vietnam became the largest solar energy market in Southeast Asia in 2019, attracting foreign investors in mega plants in Binh Phuoc, Tay Ninh, and Ninh Thuan provinces, given the more attractive feed-in-tariff schemes compared to other countries in the region. Buyers have also been active with acquisitions of onshore and offshore wind farms in the central highlands and central coastal regions, which boast huge potential given their ample wind resources.

In Vietnam’s real estate market, M&A remains the quickest solution for foreign developers to enter the country and for local developers to expand their land portfolio. An increase in real estate M&A activity is expected this year, as various projects will be approved thanks to new improvements in the Law on Investment, after lengthy delays in the review process in previous years. Investors have accumulated a lot of capital, which is waiting to be deployed as the economy recovers, while owners struggling from the impact of the pandemic are willing to sell at lower valuations. Within the sector, industrial real estate has seen more activity in 2021, as multinational companies continue to shift their manufacturing bases from China to Vietnam despite the ongoing pandemic. Meanwhile, deal flow in residential real estate is expected to recover in the latter half of the year, as postponed transactions are resumed when travel restrictions are loosened.

Manufacturing, one of the sectors temporarily hit by Covid-19, will also provide opportunities to buyers who are confident of a strong economic recovery. Vietnam has been emerging as a manufacturing hub in the region given its low labor costs, its strategic location and many seaports nationwide, and its increasing participation in free trade agreements. For these reasons, its manufacturing sector will remain attractive to foreign investors, especially given ongoing China-US trade tensions, resulting in the relocation of manufacturing hubs from China to Vietnam. Domestically, there could also be a pickup in M&A activity, as we might see a trend in the consolidation of struggling small and medium-sized players into respective market leaders. Demand for growth capital from businesses looking for internal transformation and rebuilding post-pandemic will also present opportunities for investors looking for high-quality assets at attractive valuations.

Common risks and opportunities

Some of the common risks include uncertainty in the legal framework, especially new laws that came into effect recently, quality of information, as some companies still do not apply best practices in bookkeeping, an unfamiliarity among Vietnamese sellers with M&As and the basic concepts and processes involved, and cultural differences during deal negotiation and post-deal integration.

M&A transactions in Vietnam are largely governed by the Law on Enterprises, the Law on Investment, and the Law on Competition. Recent changes in these laws have posed additional challenges to potential buyers. For example, under the new Law on Competition, a substantially higher percentage of M&A deals are subject to merger control filing requirements, and the evaluation process could potentially add months of uncertainty to the timeline of a deal. Quality of information is also a common issue for foreign buyers, as target companies do not always have an organized information system that meets their requirements.

The current postponement of inbound international flights due to the pandemic also makes it difficult for buyers to conduct in-depth due diligence through site visits and face-to-face meetings. Additionally, foreign buyers might be unfamiliar with cultural differences in corporate governance practices in Vietnam. Many target companies are founder-owned, family-run businesses, which may not yet see the value-added of foreign strategic and financial partners or be open to international corporate governance standards. Last but not least, Vietnamese sellers lack knowledge in terms of how the M&A process works and is structured, which will create uncertainties.

Despite the existing drawbacks, it is important to acknowledge that compared to a decade ago, the perception of M&As in Vietnam has changed dramatically among government agencies, business owners, and investors/buyers and in a positive way. Authorities are continuously improving their turn-around times and responsiveness, while working toward new guidelines for M&A transactions, with the new Law on Enterprises, Law on Investment, and Law on Securities having come into effect on January 1, 2021. Shareholders are now more open to adding M&A as a strategic option in their growth trajectory and are becoming more educated in terms of M&A processes and key concepts. We see that sellers are taking a much more structured approach for large domestic deals or cross-border deals by engaging relevant advisors, who will help mitigate risks for foreign buyers by working with them through a transparent process. As BDA has a local team in Vietnam, we have been fortunate and pleased to be trusted by many local business owners and have given them advice and helped them run structured deal processes along the way.

We remain confident in the availability of opportunities in Vietnam’s M&A market. From a macro level value creation process perspective, Vietnam will continue to enjoy: (i) stable, unparalleled economic growth compared to other Southeast Asia countries, especially amid Covid-19; (ii) an influx of advantages from recent free trade agreements; and (iii) a strong government push to equitize State-owned enterprises. From a micro-level perspective, Vietnamese companies are becoming more professional with stronger management teams and better corporate governance. They are more open to foreign investors as they see the different values that both strategic and financial investors can bring.

Anticipated M&A deals and volume in next six months

Companies looking to position themselves for recovery in the post-pandemic economy will need new capital injections for internal transformation and further growth to remain competitive, and they will be eager to restart conversations with buyers for deals that were put on hold or lost. Within businesses in industries such as F&B, manufacturing, and industrials that have been negatively affected by the pandemic, there are still a lot of sizable and high-quality assets in the market. This environment will create opportunities for an increase in deal flow linked to dislocation, as sellers are more willing to close deals at a lower valuation in exchange for immediate access to growth capital. Until travel restrictions are loosened, local investors will have an advantage over foreign counterparts in such transactions, given their presence in Vietnam and their ability to run quicker processes and provide liquidity to businesses in need. We also expect to see a consolidation trend in M&A transactions, as market conditions have become challenging for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

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