Openness To Foreign Investment
The Lao government is open to foreign investment as a matter of policy. It allows 100% foreign ownership of investments. The overall investment climate is poor but improving. For the year 2009, Laos rated 158 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and 167 out of 183 countries in the World Bank Group’s Ease of Doing Business Index.
The economic reforms adopted in 1988 and Decree No. 73/PO, dated October 22, 2004, purport to promote foreign direct investment as a means of boosting development and economic growth. Under the 2004 Law on the Promotion of Foreign Investment, scheduled to be updated at the end of 2009 (delayed due to Laos’ hosting of the 25th Southeast Asia Games in December 2009), foreign investors may invest in all business sectors and zones of investment in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, except in business activities which are detrimental to national security, have a negative impact on the environment, or are regarded as detrimental to health or national traditions. In recent years Laos has seen a significant increase in FDI, especially in mining, hydropower, and plantation agriculture. According to Lao government figures, the eight largest foreign investors are Thailand, China, Vietnam, France, Korea, Japan, India and Australia.
Large FDI projects, especially in mining and hydropower, often either find it advantageous or are required to give the government partial ownership, frequently with money borrowed from the investor or multilateral institutions. Perhaps the most well-known is the Nam Teun II dam, whose 25% government ownership stake was financed by a wide range of international financial institutions. The investment term of a foreign investment enterprise depends on the nature, size, and conditions of the business project but normally cannot exceed fifty years. Under special circumstances, foreign investment enterprises may be extended with the approval of the government. However, foreign enterprises that receive extension approval from the government may not exceed a total investment term of seventy-five years.
Foreign investors seeking to establish operations in Laos must submit project proposals to the One Stop Shop Service Division in the Department for Promotion and Management of Domestic and Foreign Investment (DDFI), Ministry for Planning and Investment (MPI). The proposal is then screened by the relevant line ministries and adjudicated by the Prime Minister’s Office. Under Prime Minister Decree No 301, dated October 12, 2005, proposals for projects worth $20 million or more require the approval of the Prime Minister. The Minister of MPI can approve investments below $20 million while the Vice Minister can approve investments of less than $10 million. FDI equal to or less than USD 3 million can be approved at the provincial level by all provinces, and in four of the larger provinces – Vientiane Capital, Savannakhet, Champasack, and Luang Prabang, the ceiling for provincial level approval is $5 million.
Foreign investors in a joint venture must contribute at least thirty percent (30%) of the venture’s registered capital. Capital contributed in foreign currency must be converted into kip based on the exchange rate of the Bank of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on the day of the capital contribution. Wholly foreign-owned companies may either be a new company or a branch office of an existing foreign company. Throughout the period of operation of a foreign investment enterprise, the assets of the enterprise must not be less than its registered capital. The screening process at the Department for Promotion and Management of Domestic and Foreign Investment (DDFI) in the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) takes into account the financial and technical feasibility of the project, input from relevant line ministries, and whether the proposed project conflicts with government policy.
Upon receipt of an application, the MPI must coordinate with relevant sectors and local authorities to consider and respond in writing to the foreign investor. Responses to projects, depending on project type, are supposed to be forthcoming within 15–45 working days.
Foreign investors are required to obtain a foreign investment license, an enterprise registration certificate, and a tax registration certificate from the MPI office nearest the place where the foreign investors are licensed. Thereafter they shall be considered as enterprises established in conformity with the laws of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Within 90 days from the date of receipt of an investment license the foreign investment enterprise must commence business activities. If the investors fail to do so, the foreign investment license is subject to termination.
In addition to the investment license, foreign investors are required to obtain other permits. These include a business registration which must be annually renewed from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, a tax registration from the tax department in the Ministry of Finance, a business logo registration from the Ministry of Public Security, permits from each line ministry related to the investment (i.e., Ministry of Industry and Commerce for manufacturing; Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, etc.), appropriate permits from local authorities, and an import-export license, if needed. Obtaining the necessary permits can pose a challenge to foreign investors, especially in areas outside the capital. The recent creation of a “one-stop shop” for many permits within the Ministry of Planning and Investment should help ease permitting difficulties in the future.
Lao law provides for sanctity of contracts. The following link is for a translation of the Lao contract law. http://www.undplao.org/whatwedo/bgresource/demogov/Lao%20Translated%20Laws/First%20Volume/4.%20Contracts.pdf
However, since Laos is a communist one-party state, the sanctity of contracts is subject both to political interference and a number of socialist principles enshrined in the law. The Mekong Law Group, a well-known local law firm, has noted in its “Lao Legal & Investment Guide” that according to the contract law:
Although a commercial court system exists, in practice most judges adjudicating commercial disputes have little training in commercial law. Those considering doing business in Laos are strongly urged to contact a reputable law firm for additional advice on contracts.
In 2006 the Lao government ceased imposing import restrictions on trading companies, whether foreign or domestic, in an effort to let the market respond to actual demand. The Lao government no longer requires companies to file an annual import plan for approval by the Ministry of Commerce. The main exception is the fuel industry, where individual companies are still required to file an annual import plan. The government controls the retail price and profit margins of gasoline and diesel. Government documents articulating the restrictions and explaining the policy are difficult to obtain. Goods that are always prohibited for private import and export range from explosives and weapons, to literature that presents a negative view of the Lao government, to certain forestry products and wildlife. For a detailed list of import & export restrictions please visit http://www.moc.gov.la/default.asp.
Agriculture production and most manufacturing production are private. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) currently account for only one percent of total employment. Approximately 97 percent of manufacturing units are small (fewer than 10 employees). Foreign companies interested in acquiring SOEs should apply through the Department for Promotion and Management of Domestic and Foreign Investment (DDFI) in the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI). Equity in medium and large-sized SOEs can be obtained through a joint venture with the Lao government.
Conversion And Transfer Policies
In order to facilitate business transactions, foreign investors generally open commercial bank accounts in both local and foreign convertible currency at domestic and foreign banks in Laos. French, Australian, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and Malaysian banks currently have a presence in Laos. Bank accounts must be maintained in accordance with the Enterprise Accounting Law. The law places no limitations on foreign investors transferring after-tax profits, income from technology transfer, initial capital, interest, wages and salaries, or other remittances to the company’s home country or third countries so long as they request approval from the Lao government. These transactions are conducted at the official exchange rate on the day of execution, upon presentation of appropriate documentation. Foreign currency inflows in recent years have been adequate to support the repatriation of capital. Large multinationals in Laos report no problems with access to foreign exchange. Foreign enterprises must report on their performance annually and submit annual financial statements to the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI).
Expropriation And Compensation
Foreign assets and investments in Laos are protected by laws and regulations against seizure, confiscation, or nationalization except when this is deemed necessary for a public purpose, in which case foreign investors are to be compensated. While there have been no expropriations, the Lao Government has revoked the foreign investment licenses of companies in a less than transparent process. Revocation of an investment license cannot be appealed to an independent body, and companies whose licenses are revoked must then liquidate their assets relatively rapidly. In addition, a company that fails to begin conducting business within ninety days of registering could be dissolved if it does not have a reasonable explanation.
According to the Foreign Investment Law, investors involved in investment disputes must seek arbitration before taking legal action. If arbitration does not result in an amicable settlement, litigants may submit their claims to the economic arbitration authority of Laos, or that of the investor’s country, or an international organization agreed on by both parties. In practice, there are no adequate independent arbitration venues in Laos. Foreign investors are therefore generally advised to seek arbitration outside the country, since Laos’ nascent domestic arbitration authority lacks enforcement powers. Laos is not a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes. It became a party to the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards on September 15, 1998, but Laos has never been asked to enforce a foreign arbitral award. Laos is a member of the United Nations Convention on International Trade Law.
In disputes involving the Ministry of Planning and Investment, decisions can only be appealed back to the Ministry itself. There is no separate independent body. Thus a company which feels it is receiving unfair treatment from the government has no independent recourse. Laos’ legal system is evolving, but remains incomplete in many regards. Laws sometimes contradict each other and often lack implementing regulations. For example, tax exemptions and low import duties guaranteed to foreign investors under the foreign investment law are not reflected in customs or tax law. Supported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Singapore, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), some laws have been officially translated into English. These include the business, tax, bankruptcy, customs, and secured transaction laws. Implementing regulations for the Foreign Investment Law, which are crucial to enforcement, were approved on October 10, 2005. The reliability of unofficial translations varies considerably, which can create an environment of uncertainty and ambiguity among foreign investors. Application of Lao law remains inconsistent and knowledge of the laws themselves is often limited (especially outside the capital). The existence of a large number of government decrees, sometimes unpublished, further complicates the situation. While the trend under the current government is towards more openness and more accountability, investors are cautioned to recognize that economic and legal reform remain a work in progress.
Projects funded by the Australian government, the EU, the U.S., and the UN Development Program to assist Lao accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) include components aimed at bringing Lao commercial law into conformity with WTO standards. A commercial court was established during 2003, and began to hear cases in 2005. The Lao Bar Association was set up in 2007.
Laos has no anti-trust statutes. The bankruptcy law permits either the business or creditor the right to petition the court for a bankruptcy judgment, and allows businesses the right to request mediation. There is no record of foreign-owned enterprises, whether as debtors or as creditors, petitioning the courts for a bankruptcy judgment.
Performance Requirements And Incentives
Laos does not impose performance requirements per se. Foreign investors are encouraged to give priority to Lao citizens in recruiting and hiring. According to the foreign investment law, foreign personnel can be hired, although unskilled labor may not exceed ten percent (10%) of the enterprise’s total labor force. In the case of skilled labor, or politically important projects, the Ministry of Planning and Investment has confirmed that enterprises can hire up to twenty percent (20%) foreign labor. Before bringing in foreign labor, the enterprise must apply for work permits from the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. A foreign personnel list must also be submitted to the Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation Division of the Department for Promotion and Management of Domestic and Foreign Investment (DDFI).
Incentives for Foreign Investment: Laos grants incentives for foreign investment depending on the sectors and zones of investment promotion. The government defines promoted activities under Article 16 as follows:
Text of the Law on the Promotion of Foreign Investment is here:
Geographical and tax incentives are described in articles 17 and 18.
Foreigners employed in Laos, including foreign investors, must pay an income tax of 10 percent of their total income to the Lao Government, unless they are citizens of a country with which the Lao Government has signed a double taxation agreement. The United States has no such agreement with Laos. The government began replacing the former business turnover tax system with a Value Added Tax (VAT) in January 2009.
Foreign investors are not required to pay import duty on equipment, spare parts and other materials used in the operation of their enterprises. Raw materials and intermediate goods imported for the purpose of processing and re-export are exempt from import duties. Raw materials and intermediate goods imported for the purpose of import substitution are also eligible for import duty reductions on a case-by-case basis. On an individual basis, foreign investors are also eligible for profit tax and import duty reductions or exemptions, if the investment is significantly large or determined to have a significant benefit to Laos’ socio-economic development. To date the Lao Government appears to have honored its incentives. Annual business license renewal is contingent upon certification that corporate income taxes have been paid. The tax code was streamlined and simplified in April 2005, but some investors still report significant difficulties in obtaining tax certifications in a timely manner.
The Foreign Investment Law stipulates that foreign investors and their families, including foreign professionals and foreign employees of an enterprise, shall be facilitated by issue of multiple entry visas and, if approved by the government, long term residence in the Lao PDR. They also, in theory, have the right to apply for Lao nationality in accordance with the Law on Nationality.
Right To Private Ownership And Establishment
The government recognizes the right of private enterprise ownership, and foreigners may transfer shares of a foreign-invested company without prior government approval. However, the business law requires that all shareholders be listed in the articles of association, and changes in the articles of association of a foreign-invested company must be approved by DDFI-Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI), per the Enterprise Law http://www.moc.gov.la/default.asp. Thus, transferring shares in a foreign-invested company registered in Laos does require the indirect approval of the government (DDFI-MPI).
Protection Of Property Rights
Foreign investors are not permitted to own land in fee-simple. However, the government grants long-term leases, and allows the ownership of leases and the right to transfer and improve leasehold interests. Government approval is not required to transfer property interests, but the transfer must be registered and a registration fee paid. In 2010, the GOL plans to enact an amendment to the Investment Promotion Law permitting residential land use rights for foreigners investing at least $500,000 in Laos.
Secured interests in property are inadequately covered by the Secured Transactions Law of 1994. Because the law offers no instructions for the creditor to enforce security rights (the creditor, for example, can only request repayment from the debtor), the law favors the debtor. Moreover, since the Ministry of Finance’s registry system is not computerized, and cannot cross-reference records, it is difficult to determine if a piece of property is encumbered. Laos issued a trademark decree in January 1995. The National Science and Technology Organization (NSTO), part of the Prime Minister’s Office, controls the issuance of trademarks on a first-come, first-register basis. Applicants do not have to demonstrate prior use. There are currently at least 20,400 trademarks registered in Laos.
Laos became a member of the ASEAN Common Filing System on patents in 2000 but lacks adequate personnel qualified to serve as patent examiners. A draft decree on patents was sent to the Prime Minister in February 2000 for approval and in 2002 the Prime Minister’s Office issued patent regulations. Since Thailand and Laos have a bilateral Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreement, in principle a patent issued in Thailand would also be recognized in Laos.
Copyright protection in Laos is weak. There is no system to issue copyrights in Laos, only a certification of copyright information. Laos became a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Convention in January 1995 and the Paris Convention on the Protection of Industrial Property in October 1998; it has not yet joined the Bern Convention on Copyrights, however. Laos promulgated an Intellectual Property Law in January 2008, and the Prime Minister issued an implementation decree in April of that year. An English translation sponsored by the US government is still awaiting final approval by the National Assembly. Enforcement of this law remains problematic and there is currently little protection for intellectual property rights in Laos, although the authorities have taken steps to crack down on some pirated goods.
Transparency of the Regulatory System
The principal laws, regulations, decrees and guidelines governing international trade and investment, as well as the current protection of intellectual property, are available to the public, although not all have been officially translated into English. Laws and their schedules for implementation are customarily published in Lao daily newspapers, and relevant line ministries are beginning to put laws and regulations on websites. The website for UNDP Laos maintains a partial list of translated Lao laws:
Laws can also be found via the following websites. Laws on the National Assembly website represent the officially approved English translations:
http://www.na.gov.la/index.php (look under legislation on the left side);
In September 2007, the Prime Minister issued Order No 35 instructing the MoF to move ahead with centralization of customs, tax and treasury departments. In January 2009 the Government introduced a Value-Added Tax (VAT).
A lack of transparency in a centralized decision-making process, as well as the difficulty encountered in obtaining information, augment the perception of the regulatory framework as arbitrary and inscrutable.
Efficient Capital Markets And Portfolio Investment
Laos does not have a developed capital market. Three-month treasury bills are occasionally offered for sale when there is a need to absorb excess liquidity in the economy. The largest denomination of currency is 50,000 kip (about $6). Credit is available for capital investments of any size, but the amount of the loan is limited to 60% of the borrower’s collateral value. In response to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, the GOL embarked on a massive stimulus program through which the Bank of Laos rapidly expanded credit to state owned commercial banks and state owned enterprises, although credit is difficult to obtain for farmers and small businesses. Credit growth remains highly accelerated, and the IMF has recommended that the GOL take measures to tighten lending. International reserves fluctuate, with the latest available 2009 data showing sufficient coverage for 3 months of imports and a decrease to $536 million from $636 million in 2008.
The banking system is under the supervision of the Bank of Lao PDR, and includes:
Private foreign banks can establish branches in all provinces of Laos. The Commercial Bank Law is available on the Bank of Lao PDR (BOL) website: http://www.bol.gov.la/english/decreecom1.html. BCEL has correspondence arrangements with the following banks (US dollars):
The Lao banking sector is in flux, with new private and foreign banks opening to provide modern banking options to Lao and foreign businesses. Banking sector reform has continued through strengthening of the state-owned commercial banks’ (SOCB) balance sheets and banking practices; however, the system remains weak and financial depth, low. SOCB capital is positive for the first time in many years as a result of recapitalization and improved profitability, yet capital adequacy is still well below the statutory minimum. For detailed information see the IMF Article IV report: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2009/cr09284.pdf
The Asian Development Bank has provided both program loans and technical assistance to Laos’ financial sector, as have the World Bank and the IMF. These programs have led to some reforms but overall capacity within the governance structure remains weak and the banks face many challenges.
The Government of Laos is planning to open a stock exchange in October 2010, with technical assistance provided by the South Korean government.
Laos is generally a peaceful and politically stable country. For current State Department information please see:
The Prime Minister’s Office has made combating corruption a priority, including issuance of an anticorruption decree in November 1999, but corruption remains a problem. Although the 1999 decree specifically notes the responsibility of the state-owned mass media in publicizing corruption cases, there has been no reporting on this issue. In 2005, an anti-corruption law was passed by the National Assembly, and in September 2009, Laos ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. According to the State Inspection Authority, the Lao Government has prosecuted some individuals for corruption but it cannot publicize the information.
The State Inspection Authority, located in the Prime Minister’s Office, is charged with analyzing corruption at the national level and serves as a central office for gathering details and evidence of suspected corruption. Additionally, the State Inspection Department in each Ministry is responsible for a ministry’s internal problems.
Laos is not a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery. Both giving and accepting bribes are criminal acts punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. Besides bribes to low-level officials for the purpose of expediting time-sensitive applications, such as business licenses, importation of perishable items, customs, etc., anecdotal evidence of more pervasive corruption is growing. Laos is rated 158 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index (with one being the least corrupt). Generally, the government tends to deal with unacceptable corruption problems by forcing corrupt officials to retire or move to a new position.
Bilateral Investment Agreements
Laos has bilateral investment agreements with the following countries:
|Country||Date Signed||Date Entered Into force||Duration (in years)|
|Rep of Korea||5/15/96||6/14/96||15|
On February 1, 2005 a Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) came into force between the U.S. and the Government of Laos. Laos and the United States do not have a bilateral taxation treaty.
OPIC And Other Investment Insurance Programs
The United States and Laos signed an Overseas Private Investment Cooperation (OPIC) agreement in March 1996. In 1998 Laos signed an agreement with the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA). The EXIMBANK is now able to provide short- and medium-term financing for purchases of U.S. exports by public-sector buyers in Laos. The kip, while not an internationally traded currency, has been appreciating against the Thai baht due to weak exports. The kip has also appreciated 0.05% against the dollar since 2008-09, although a significant economic downturn could lead to the kip again depreciating against the dollar.
Over 75 percent of Laos’ work force of 3.65 million is engaged in subsistence agriculture, according to the GOL. The Lao government estimated the total non-agricultural work force in 2008 to number 781,100 people, roughly 25,000 of whom were employed in garment manufacturing. The total labor force is expected to increase by more than 30 percent over the next ten years.
The Labor Law passed in 1994 provides for the formation of trade unions; specifies working hours and compensation standards; allows for maternity leave and benefits; workers’ compensation and retirement benefits; and establishes procedures for labor dispute resolution. The Lao government raised the official minimum wage to 405,000 kip per month (about $48) in 2008. Wages for unskilled labor at garment factories, including bonuses and lunch, now run about 569,000 kip or about $67 monthly. Labor unions can be formed in private enterprises, but they must operate within the framework of the Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), which is controlled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. In 2009, membership in the LFTU numbered 126,000. Strikes are not prohibited by law, but a government ban on subversive activities or destabilizing demonstrations makes them unlikely.
Laos has significant human resource deficiencies in virtually all sectors. English is not widely spoken. In 2009, about 23 percent of the population age 15 and above remained illiterate. The shortage of skilled labor is particularly acute in high-tech sectors. The country has a few technical colleges, and one scientific research facility--the Centre for Laboratory and Epidemiology and few post-graduate degree programs. The Lao Government has used only low levels of domestic resources to improve the country’s education system and tends to rely heavily on international donors for support; there are a few state training programs and some foreign-funded programs. Potential investors should note the need to dedicate substantial resources, both human and capital, to train employees. It is not unusual for foreign investors to bring in Thai managers due to a lack of skilled local personnel.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports
The Foreign Investment Law allows for the establishment of free trade zones as an investment incentive. A zone in southern Savannakhet province, which borders both Vietnam and Thailand, is such a Special Economic Zone. Lao laws pertaining to trade are supposedly applied uniformly across the entire customs territory of Laos, including all sub-central authorities, special economic zones and border trade regions. In reality, however, customs practices vary widely at ports of entry in the provinces. The Director General of Customs has said that recent centralization of customs collection could increase the flow of customs revenue to the central government by an estimated fifty to seventy percent.
Foreign Direct Investment Statistics
GOL investment figures significantly overstate actual investment, as they include all approved projects regardless of whether the investment actually takes place. Both the World Bank and the IMF have lower estimates than Lao government figures. During 2009, the GOL approved $4,313 million worth of foreign investment projects. Hydropower schemes account for about 5.06 percent of that amount. Foreign investment figures fluctuate widely from year to year due to the prevalence of large-scale investments in the hydropower, mining and services sectors. Foreign direct investment figures from the Bank of Lao PDR for recent years follows below:
Real FDI inflow through Bank of Lao PDR (in Millions of USD)
|2000||2001||2002||2003||2004||2005||2006||2007||2008 ||2009 |
|FDI approved (in Millions of USD)|
In 2009, DDFI approved approximately $4,313 million in investment projects. According to DDFI figures, 29 “U.S.” projects were approved between 2000 and 2009, including 3 projects worth a total of $12.36 million in 2009. Foreign investment now comes primarily from other Asian countries, particularly Thailand (traditionally Laos’ largest trade and investment partner), China, and Vietnam, as well as from France, Korea, Japan, India, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Foreign Investment Licensed in the Lao PDR by countries of origin, from 2000 through September 2009, in U.S. Dollars. (Source: Department for Promotion and Management of Domestic and Foreign Investment (DDFI), Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI).
|Rank ||Country ||Number of Projects||Capital|
|Ranks ||Sector||No. of Projects||Capital|
|5||Industry & Handicraft||252||806,596,536|
|8||Hotel & Restaurant||83||234,311,245|