A year ago, Vietnam was being hailed as the next Asian miracle, a success story to match the rise of the Asian tigers of the 1990s and more recently the stunning growth of China and India. Thanks to economic reforms, the communist country was attracting record amounts of foreign investment. The economy expanded by 8.5% last year—among the fastest rates in the region—and housing prices doubled and tripled, driven up in part by frantic buyers who stood in line to snap up condos before they had even been built. The country’s nascent stock market was minting millionaires. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, their flashy new cars clogged roads better suited for bicycles.
But a funny thing happened on the way to prosperity. Halfway through 2008, Vietnam’s authoritarian government finds itself grappling with soaring prices, collapsing markets and an increasingly restive workforce. Inflation, now running at an annual rate of 25%, is eating up much of the gains made by citizens over the last several years. Vietnam’s stock market, which has fallen 58.5% since January, currently holds the unhappy title of being the worst-performing in the world in the last 30 days. Citing the government’s difficulty in reining in inflation, Moody’s, which grades creditworthiness, lowered Vietnam’s ratings outlook last week to negative from positive. Poor ratings signal that banks may have trouble meeting their financial obligations, undermining investors’ confidence in the country. In a nutshell, the economy overheated and the government was too slow to respond, says Jonathan Pincus, chief economist for the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam. “It’s how we got into this problem,” he says.