By Netty Ismail and Yoolim Lee
July 24 (Bloomberg) — Cambodia plans to open its first stock exchange and start a corporate bond market in the fourth quarter of 2009 in a bid to attract foreign funds to Southeast Asia’s second-poorest nation, a government official said.
Six to 10 companies, with a combined market value of $200 million to $400 million, including Sokimex Group, the country’s biggest petroleum company, and Acleda Bank Plc, its largest bank, will likely be listed on the exchange within a year of it being set up, Kao Thach, head of the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s financial market division, said late yesterday.
Cambodia, which abolished money under the Khmer Rouge three decades ago, is seeking to lure foreign funds as economic growth slows after peaking at 13.5 percent in 2005. The government will need to improve the legal system and urge Cambodian companies to open their accounting records to investor scrutiny, said Agost Benard, who covers the country for Standard & Poor’s.
“Given all the uncertainties and lack of transparency, at least initially, it will probably be the local people who are willing to take the punt,” said Benard, associate director at the rating company in Singapore. “International investors who expect higher standards of disclosure and transparency will take a wait-and-see attitude.”
The government last year asked more than 400 companies, most of which are family businesses, to get their financial statements audited to improve transparency, Thach, 34, said in an interview in Phnom Penh.
“Cambodia has been effectively cut off from the rest of the developed world for the past three decades, so a lot of business has been done based on unwritten local rules,” said Marvin Yeo, co-founder of Frontier Investment & Development Partners in Phnom Penh.
Frontier Investment, a private-equity fund, is raising $250 million to put in the second-poorest of 10 Southeast Asian nations, and will cash out of some of its planned investments through listings on the exchange, Yeo said.
The listing requirements in Cambodia will likely be modeled on the Kosdaq, South Korea’s second stock market that was set up 12 years ago for small- and medium-sized firms as well as venture start-ups, Thach said.
Companies seeking a Kosdaq listing need to be in business for at least three years with minimum paid-in capital of 500 million won ($495,417) and debt-to-equity ratio of less than 150 percent of the industry mean. Venture capital firms have less stringent requirements under the South Korean government’s program to prop up smaller technology companies.
South Korea’s exchange is helping Cambodia set up its bourse. The Cambodian government, which will likely own at least 51 percent of the planned venture, and the operator of the Seoul-based bourse, Korea Exchange Inc., will begin discussions next month to decide on their shareholdings, Thach said.
The Cambodia Securities and Exchange Commission will likely be set up as early as September, Thach said.
“They’re nowhere near getting the rules together, the criteria for listing, transparency, proper accounting,” said John Brinsden, vice chairman of Acleda Bank, the largest Cambodian bank with 209 branches in 24 provinces.
Acleda Bank will “need a lot of capital over the next few years” as it opens more offices in Cambodia and neighboring countries including Laos, Brinsden said in Phnom Penh.
Sokimex, which has monopoly rights to ticket sales at the Angkor Wat ancient temple ruins in Siem Reap, plans to expand its hotel and resorts business, Chief Executive Officer Sok Kong said on the company’s Web site.
Other Cambodian companies considering initial public offerings includeCanadia Bank Plc, Union Commercial Bank Plc and Mong Rithy Group, which has palm oil plantations in Sihanoukville, Thach said.
Royal Group, which owns the country’s biggest mobile-phone operator and has a partnership with Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. in Cambodia, will consider a listing “in the future,” Chairman Kith Meng said in an interview in Phnom Penh.
Companies can sell shares or bonds in Cambodia’s currency, the riel, or the dollar, which will mitigate any foreign exchange risk for international investors, Thach said.
Still, “the biggest concern would be the credibility of the companies or their reporting standards,” said Frontier Investment’s Yeo. Transparency International, a private monitoring agency based in Berlin, ranked Cambodia 162nd of 179 countries in its annual report on perceptions of corruption last year.
To contact the reporter on this story: Netty Ismail in Singapore