Executive Summary

Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is a rapidly growing developing economy at the heart of Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma, Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Laos’ economic growth over the last decade averaged just below eight percent, placing Laos amongst the fastest growing economies in the world. Over the last 30 years, Laos has made slow but steady progress in implementing reforms and building the institutions necessary for a market economy, culminating in accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in February 2013. The Lao government’s commitment to WTO accession and the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 led to major reforms of economic policies and regulations aimed at improving the business and investment environment. The Lao government is increasingly tying its economic fortunes to the economic integration of ASEAN and export-led development.

The rapid economic growth over the last decade has been driven by the exploitation of natural resources and development of hydropower, with both sectors largely led by foreign investors. However, the government recognizes that growth opportunities in these industries are finite, and has prioritized the development of high-value agriculture, light manufacturing, and tourism while continuing development of a range of energy resources and improving electrical transmission capacity to neighboring countries.

Lao government hopes to leverage its lengthy land borders with Burma, China, Thailand, and Vietnam, and to implement policies that will make Laos land-linked rather than land-locked, prioritizing easy access to larger, emerging neighbor economies. government hopes to increase exports of agriculture, manufactured goods, and electricity to its more industrialized neighbors, and sees significant growth opportunities resulting from the China-Laos Railway, which will connect Kunming in Yunnan Province with Vientiane, Laos. railway is expected to be completed by 2021. Some businesses and international investors are beginning to use Lao production bases as an opportunity to reach the broader Mekong region, including southern China. Others are placing parts of their global value chains in Laos, often as a way to diversify from existing production bases in Thailand or Vietnam. New Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Vientiane and Savannakhet have attracted major manufacturers from Europe, North America, and Japan.

Economic progress and trade expansion in Laos remain hampered by a shortage of workers with technical skills, weak education and health care systems, and poor—although improving—transportation infrastructure. Institutions, especially in the justice sector, remain highly underdeveloped and regulatory capacity is low. Investors and business people report that corruption at all levels remains a major concern.

Corruption, policy and regulatory ambiguity, and the uneven application of law are disincentives to further foreign investment in the country. The Lao government under the current administration run by Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith is making efforts to improve and its five-year plan directs the government to formulate “policies that would attract investments” and to “begin to implement public investment and investment promotion laws.” The Prime Minister has publicly stated his goal to see Laos improve its World Bank Ease of Doing Business ranking (Laos is currently ranked #141), and in February 2018 issued a Prime Minister order laying out specific steps ministries were to take in order to improve the business environment. Investors, however, report that practice has not yet caught up with the spirit of new laws. Furthermore, the multiple ministries and three separate methods for foreign investment into Laos lead to confusion, with many potential investors engaging either local partners or law firms to navigate the often confusing bureaucracy, or turning their efforts entirely toward other countries in the region.

Table 1

Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 135 of 175 http://www.transparency.org/
World Bank’s Doing Business Report “Ease of Doing Business” 2017 141 of 190 http://www.doing
Global Innovation Index 2017 Not Ranked https://www.globalinnovation
U.S. FDI in Partner Country (M USD , stock positions) 2015 No Date Available http://www.bea.gov/
World Bank GNI per capita 2015 USD 2,150 http://data.worldbank.org/

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The Lao government officially welcomes both domestic and foreign investment as it seeks to keep growth rates high and graduate from Least Developed Country status. The pace of foreign investment has increased over the last several years. According to Lao government statistics, mining and hydropower account for 80 percent of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, France, and Japan are the largest sources of foreign investment. The government’s Investment Promotion Department encourages investment through its website www.investlaos.gov.la , and has committed to annual dialogue with the private sector and foreign business chambers though the Lao Business Forum process.

The 2009 Law on Investment promotion was amended in November 2016, introducing 32 new articles and making revisions to 59 existing articles. The new law, an English version of which can be found at www.investlaos.gov.la , clarifies investment incentives, transferred responsibility for SEZs from the Prime Minister’s office to the Ministry of Planning and Investment, and removes strict registered capital requirements for opening a business, deferring instead to the relevant ministry. Foreigners may invest in any sector or business except in cases where the government deems the investment to be detrimental to national security, health or national traditions, or to have a negative impact on the natural environment. Even in cases where full foreign ownership is permitted, many foreign companies seek a local partner. Companies involved in large FDI projects, especially in mining and hydropower, often either find it advantageous or are required to give the government partial ownership.

Foreign investors are typically required to go through several steps prior to commencing operations. Many foreign business owners and potential investors claim the process to be overly complex and regulations to be erratically applied, particularly toward foreigners. Investors also describe confusion of roles between the ministries, with multiple ministries unexpectedly involved in the approval process. In the case of general investment licenses (as opposed to concessionary licenses, which are issued by Ministry of Planning and Investment), foreign investors are required to obtain other permits, including, an annual business registration from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, a tax registration from 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, and Ministry of Energy and Mines for power sector development), appropriate permits from local authorities, and an import-export license, if applicable. Obtaining the necessary permits can pose a challenge, especially in areas outside the capital.

There are several possible vehicles for foreign investment. Foreign partners in a joint venture must contribute at least 30 percent of the company’s registered capital. Wholly foreign-owned companies may be entirely new or a branch of an existing foreign enterprise. Equity in medium and large-sized SOEs can be obtained through a joint venture with the Lao government.

Although reliable statistics are difficult to obtain, there is no question that foreign investment has increased dramatically over the last several years. According to UNCTAD, USD 980 million in FDI entered Laos in 2016, a 20 percent increase over 2014. Laos received almost USD 4 billion in FDI from China between the years of 2010-2015. Total FDI stock in Laos doubled between 2013 and 2016, reaching USD 5.6 billion. There are also small but growing signs of growth in higher-quality FDI at SEZs focused on light manufacturing.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreigners may invest in any sector or business except in cases where the government deems the investment to be detrimental to national security, health, or national traditions, or to have a negative impact on the natural environment. Even in cases where full foreign ownership is permitted, many foreign companies seek a local partner in order to navigate byzantine official and unofficial processes. Companies involved in large FDI projects, especially in mining and hydropower, often either find it advantageous or are required to give the government partial ownership.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The OECD releases its new investment policy review of Laos on July 11, 2017. More details can be found at http://www.oecd.org/daf/inv/investment-policy/oecd-investment-policy-reviews-lao-pdr-2017-9789264276055-en.htm .

Business Facilitation

Laos does not have a central business registration website. Timelines and government agencies involved in business registration can vary considerably. Many investors and even locals will hire consultancies or law firms to shepherd the effort-intensive registration process, which can take from a few weeks to several months.

The Lao government has attempted to streamline business registration through the use of a one-stop shop model. For general business activities, this service is located in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. For activities requiring a government concession, the service is located in the Ministry of Planning and Investment. For SEZs, one-stop registration is run through the Ministry of Planning and Investment or in special one-stop service offices within the SEZs under the authority of the Ministry of Planning and Investment, such as in the Savan Seno SEZ.

Business owners give the one-stop shop concept mixed reviews. Many acknowledge that it is an improvement, though describe it as an incomplete reform with several steps that must still be taken outside of the single stop. Businesses also complain that there are often different registration requirements at the central and provincial levels.

Outward Investment

The Lao government does not actively promote, incentivize, or restrict outward investment.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Laos has bilateral investment agreements with Australia, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia Federation, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam. On February 1, 2005 a Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) came into force between the United States and the Government of Laos which contains some investment provisions.

Laos and the United States do not have a bilateral taxation treaty.

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Regulations in Laos can be vague and conflicting, a subject which the private sector raises regularly with the government, including through official fora such as the Lao Business Forum. The 2013 Law on Making Legislation mandated that all laws be available online at the official gazette website, www.laoofficialgazette.gov.la . Draft bills are also available for public comment through the official gazette website, though not all bills are posted for comment or in the official gazette, and the provinces seldom post their local legislation as required. Though the situation continues to improve, the realities of doing business in Laos can fail to correspond with existing legislation and regulation. Implementation and enforcement often do not strictly follow the letter of the law, and vague or contradictory clauses in laws and regulations provide for widely varying interpretations. Regulations at the national and provincial levels can often diverge, overlap, or contradict one another. Many local firms complain of informal or gray competition from firms that offer lower costs by flaunting formal registration requirements and operating outside of government regulatory structures.

The nascent legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are not particularly conducive to a transparent, competitive business environment. International accounting norms apply and major international firms are present in the market, though understanding and adherence to these norms is limited to a small section of the business community. There are seven companies listed on the Lao stock exchange. Regulations dictate that companies listed on the exchange are to be held to accounting standards, but capacity to enforce those standards is low.

International Regulatory Considerations

Laos is a member of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and would seek to implement any AEC-agreed standards domestically. However, the local capacity to develop regulatory standards is weak, while enforcement of technical regulations is weaker still.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Laos currently has a poorly developed legal sector. The government aims to become a rule of law state by 2020 and continues to work with many international donors on a comprehensive legal sector reform plan. From 1975 to 1991, Laos did not have a constitution, and government decrees, issued by many ministries and officials, provided the country’s legal framework. While there have been dramatic improvements in the legal system in more recent years, there are relatively few lawyers, inexperienced judges, and laws often remain vague and subject to broad interpretation.

The existing system incorporates some major elements of the French civil law system, but is also influenced by the former Soviet Union’s legal system as well as those of neighbors in the region. Court decisions are neither widely published nor do they dramatically affect future decisions. The Lao judicial system is bureaucratically independent of the government cabinet, but still subject to government and political interference.

Contract law in Laos is lacking in many areas important to trade and commerce. While it does provide for sanctity of contracts, in practice, contracts are subject to political interference and patronage. Business have reported that contracts can be voided if found disadvantageous to one party, or if an agreement conflicts with state or public interests. Foreign businessmen have described contracts in Laos as being considered “a framework for negotiation” rather than a binding agreement, and even when faced with a judgment, enforcement is weak and further subject to the influence of corruption. 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.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The 2009 Law on Investment promotion was amended in November 2016, introducing 32 new articles and making revisions to 59 existing articles. The new law provides more transparency regarding regulations and procedures, and is more specific in what responsibilities fall under the Ministry of Planning and Investment. The 2016 Law on Investment Promotion introduced uniform business registration requirements and tax incentives that apply equally to foreign and domestic investors. Foreigners may invest in any sector or business except in cases where the government deems the investment to be detrimental to national security, health, or national traditions, or to have a negative impact on the natural environment. Aside from these sectors, there are no statutory limits on foreign ownership or control of commercial enterprises, but in practice many companies seek a local partner.

Most laws of interest to investors will be featured on the Lao Trade Portal website, http://www.laotradeportal.gov.la , with many laws and regulations translated into English, or on the Official Gazette, http://laoofficialgazette.gov.la . The 2012 Law on Making Legislation stipulated that any legislation not posted by the end of 2014 to the electronic Official Gazette would be void. While many laws were placed on the site before the end of 2014 deadline, others older laws, which would have been voided on January 1, 2015, have been placed on the site since without being formally re-approved by the relevant legal bodies, resulting in a legal gray area.

Neither the government’s investment bureaucracy nor the commercial court system is well developed. Investors have experienced government practices that deviate significantly from publicly available law and regulation. Some investors decry the courts’ limited ability to handle commercial disputes and the judicial system’s vulnerability to corruption. The Lao government has repeatedly underscored its commitment to increasing predictability in the investment environment, though in practice, with some exception in SEZs and for larger companies, foreign investors describe inconsistent application of law and regulation.

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

There have been no updates since 2017. A new competition law was approved in 2015 which applies to both foreign and domestic individuals and entities. The law was drafted with the assistance of the German government and other donors. The competition law was one of the Lao government’s policy efforts to implement the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, before 2016. The law established two new government entities, the Business Competition Control (BCC) Commission and the BCC Secretariat. The BCC Commission is the senior body and its membership is decided by the Prime Minister with the advice of the Minister of Industry and Commerce. According to the legislation, it should include senior officials from multiple ministries as well as businesspeople, economists, and lawyers. The BCC Commission can draft regulations, approve mergers, levy penalties, and provide overall guidance on government competition policy and regulation. The BCC Secretariat, a lower-level institution equivalent to a Ministry of Industry and Commerce department or division, can hear complaints, conduct investigations, and conduct research and reporting at the request of the Commission.

Expropriation and Compensation

According to law, foreign assets and investments in Laos are protected against seizure, confiscation, or nationalization except when deemed necessary for a public purpose. Public purpose can be broadly defined, however, and land grabs are feared by Lao nationals and expatriates alike. In case of government expropriation, the Lao government is supposed to provide fair market compensation. A business relying on a specific parcel of land may lose is investment license if the land is in dispute. Revocation of an investment license cannot be appealed to an independent body, and companies whose licenses are revoked must then quickly liquidate their assets. Small landholdings, land with unclear title, or land on which tax has not been paid is at particular risk of expropriation.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Laos is not a member state to the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention). It is, however, a signatory to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention).

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

According to the Law on Investment Promotion, dispute resolution should be escalated through the following methods: mediation, administrative dispute resolution, dispute resolution by the Committee for Economic Dispute Resolution, and finally, litigation. However, due to the poor state of the Lao legal system and low capacity of most Lao legal administrators, foreign investors are generally advised to seek arbitration outside the country. There are few publicly available records on international investment disputes. In disputes involving the Ministry of Planning and Investment, decisions can only be appealed back to the Ministry itself. There is, as of early 2018, no separate independent body. Thus, a company alleging unfair treatment by the government has no independent recourse.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Beyond those listed above, there are no formal Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms provided in Lao law. There is no known history of Laos enforcing foreign commercial arbitral decisions.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The 1994 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. The law authorizes liquidation of assets based upon the request of a debtor or creditor. However, there is no record of a foreign-owned enterprise, whether as debtor or as creditor, petitioning the courts for a bankruptcy judgment. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report, Laos remains at the very bottom of the global rankings for ease of resolving insolvency.

Investment Incentives

Laos offers a range of investment incentives depending on the investment vehicle, with particular focus on government concessions and Special Economic Zones. Many of these incentives can be found at www.investlaos.gov.la  and are generally governed by the Investment Promotion Law.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The Foreign Investment Law allows for the establishment of Special Economic Zones and Specific Economic Zones (both referred to as SEZs). Special Economic Zones are intended to support development of new infrastructure and commercial facilities and include incentives for investment. Specific Economic Zones are meant to develop existing infrastructure and facilities and provide a lower level of incentives and support than Special Economic Zones. Laos has announced plans to construct as many as 40 special and specific zones, but had only established 12 as of 2018. Some, such as Savan Seno SEZ in Savannakhet and Vientiane Industry and Trade Area SEZ, or VITA Park, in Vientiane, have successfully attracted foreign investors. Others are accused of harboring illegal activities, such as the Golden Triangle SEZ in Bokeo Province that houses the Kings Roman Casino. The Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control in early 2018 designated the Kings Roman Casino and its owners a Transnational Criminal Organization for engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and wildlife trafficking. More Chinese-invested SEZs are expected to open in the coming years, especially along the China-Laos Railway line, and Thai companies are exploring new SEZ-style industrial parks in Laos.

Generally, the Lao government places a high priority on trade facilitation measures in international fora, particularly as it relies upon trade across its neighboring countries in order to reach sea ports. Nonetheless, Laos has struggled to harmonize its own internal processes. Cross-border trade laws and regulations should be applied uniformly across the entire customs territory of Laos. In reality, however, customs practices vary widely at different ports of entry. With assistance from Japan, the Lao government instituted a new system for electronic collection of customs fees at several major border crossings in 2016, which has been a significant improvement. On several border crossings with Vietnam, Lao and Vietnamese officials jointly conduct inspections to facilitate movement of goods.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Laos does not have performance requirements. Requirements relating to foreign hiring are governed by the 2014 Labor Law, though in practice, large investors have been able to extract additional government concessions on use of foreign labor. Some foreign-owned businesses have criticized labor regulations for strict requirements that foreign employees not travel abroad during the first months of their Lao residency.

Laos does not currently enacted laws or regulations on domestic data storage or localization requirements.

Real Property

The government continues to consider changes to its existing land policy, though progress has been slow and is further complicated by sensitive issues including community-held land rights, traditional land rights, slash-and-burn or shifting cultivation, and a history of expropriation for infrastructure, mining, and power projects.

Foreign investors are not currently permitted to own land. However, Article 16 of the 2016 Law on Investment Promotion allows investors to obtain land for use through long-term leases or as concessions, 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.

A creditor may enforce security rights against a debtor and the concept of a mortgage does exist. Although the Lao government is engaged in a land parceling and titling project, it remains difficult to determine if a piece of property is encumbered in Laos. Enforcement of mortgages is complicated by the legal protection given mortgagees against forfeiture of their sole place of residence.

Laos provides for secured interest in moveable and non-moveable property under the 2005 Law on Secured Transactions and a 2011 implementing decree from the Prime Minister. In 2013, the State Assets Management Authority at the Ministry of Finance launched a new Secured Transaction Registry (STR), intended to expand access to credit for individuals and smaller firms. The STR allows for registration of movable assets such as vehicles and equipment so that they may be easily verified by financial institutions and used as collateral for loans.

Outside of urban areas, land rights can be even more complex. Titles and ownership are not clear, and some areas practice communal titling.

Intellectual Property Rights

Intellectual property protection in Laos is weak, but steadily improving. The USAID-funded Lao PDR-U.S. International and ASEAN Integration (LUNA II) project is assisting the Lao government to build capacity in the area of IPR and to assist with progress on the IPR-related commitments undertaken as a part of Laos’ 2013 WTO accession package. LUNA II is also working with the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Department of Intellectual Property to establish an online portal that provides detailed information regarding the registration of copyrights and trademarks. It is expected to launch in Q2 of 2018.

Government reorganization in 2011 created the Ministry of Science and Technology, which controls the issuance of patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Laos is a member of the ASEAN Common Filing System on patents but lacks qualified patent examinersThe bilateral Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreement between Thailand and Laos dictates, in theory, that a patent issued in Thailand would also be recognized in Laos.

Laos is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Convention and the Paris Convention on the Protection of Industrial Property but has not yet joined the Berne Convention on Copyrights.

In 2011 the National Assembly passed a comprehensive revision of the Law on Intellectual Property which brings it into compliance with WIPO and Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property standards (TRIPS). The National Assembly passed a series of amendments to the 2011 Law on Intellectual Property, but as of early 2018 the final law has not been made public. The consolidation of responsibility for IPR under the Ministry of Science and Technology is a positive development, but the Ministry lacks enforcement capacity.

Laos is not listed in USTR’s Special 301 Report or the Notorious Markets report.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/ .

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Laos does not have a well-developed capital market, although government policies increasingly support the formation of capital and free flow of financial resources. The Lao Securities Exchange (LSX) began operations in 2011 with two stocks listed, both of them state-owned – the Banque Pour l’Commerce Exterieur (BCEL), and the power generation arm of the electrical utility, Electricite du Laos – Generation (EDL-Gen). In 2012, the Lao government increased the proportion of shares that foreigners can hold on the LSX from 10 to 20 percent. As of April 2018, there are seven companies listed on the LSX: BCEL, EDL-Gen, Petroleum Trading Laos (fuel stations), Lao World (property development and management), and Souvanny Home Center (home goods retail), Phousy Construction and Development (Construction and real estate development) and Lao Cement (LCC). News and information about the LSX is available at http://www.lsx.com.la/ .

Businesses report that they are often unable to exchange kip into foreign currencies through central or local banks. Analysts have suggested that concerns about dollar reserves have led to temporary problems in the convertibility of the national currency. Private banks allege that the Bank of Lao PDR withholds dollar reserves. The Bank of Lao PDR alleges that the private banks already hold sizable reserves and have been reluctant to give foreign exchange to their customers in order to maintain unreasonably high reserves. The tightness in the forex market led to a temporary 5-10 percent divergence between official and gray-market currency rates in late 2017.

Lao and foreign companies alike, and especially small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), note the lack of long-term credit in the domestic market. Loans repayable over more than five years are very rare, and the choice of credit instruments in the local market is limited. The Credit Information Bureau, developed to help inject more credit into markets, still has very little information and has not yet succeeded in mitigating lender concerns about risk.

Money and Banking System

The banking system is under the supervision of the Bank of Lao PDR, the nation’s central bank, and includes more than 40 banks. Private foreign banks can establish branches in all provinces of Laos. ATMs have become ubiquitous in urban centers. Technical assistance to Laos’ financial sector has led to some reforms and significant improvements to Laos’ regulatory regime on anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism, but overall capacity within the financial governance structure remains poor.

The banking system is dominated by large, government-owned banks. The health of the banking sector is difficult to determine given a lack of reliable data, though banks are widely believed to be poorly regulated and there is broad concern about bad debts and non-performing loans that have yet to be fully reconciled by the state-run banks in particular. The IMF and others have encouraged the Bank of Lao PDR to facilitate recapitalization of the state-owned banks to improve the resilience of the sector.

There is no publicly available data, but non-performing loans are widely believed to be a major concern in the financial sector, fueled in part by years of rapid growth in private lending. The government’s fiscal difficulties in 2013 and 2014 led to non-payment on government infrastructure projects. The construction companies implementing the projects in turn could not pay back loans for capital used in construction. Many analysts believe the full effects of the government’s fiscal difficulties have not yet worked their way through the economy. Laos’ annual budget deficit of 5-6 percent, coupled with rising public or publicly held debt estimated at almost 70 percent of GDP, add to concerns about Laos’ fiscal outlook. The International Monetary Fund’s annual Article 4 report provides more information.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no published, formal restrictions on foreign exchange conversion, though restrictions have previously been reported, and because the market for Lao kip is relatively small, the currency is rarely convertible outside the immediate region. Laos persistently maintains low levels of foreign reserves estimated to cover only two months’ worth of imports. The Bank of the Lao PDR (BOL) occasionally imposes daily limits on converting funds from Lao kip into U.S. dollars and Thai baht, or restricts the sectors able to convert Lao kip into dollars, sometimes leading to difficulties in obtaining foreign exchange in Laos.

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. The Enterprise Accounting 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 provided that they request approval from the Lao government. Foreign enterprises must report on their performance annually and submit annual financial statements to the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI).

The Bank of Lao PDR maintains an adjustable peg against the U.S. dollar for the Lao currency, the kip or LAK, and allows fluctuations within a band of plus or minus five percent. The peg is adjusted to account for fluctuations in value of both the U.S. dollar and the Thai baht. In recent years, the kip’s value has fluctuated far less than the allowed five percent from the adjustable peg.

Remittance Policies

There have been no recent changes to remittance law or policy in Laos. Formally, all remittances abroad, transfers into Laos, foreign loans, and payments not denominated in Lao kip must be approved by the Bank of Lao PDR. In practice, many remittances are understood to flow into Laos informally, and relatively easily, from a sizeable Lao workforce based in Thailand. Remittance-related rules can be vague and official practice is reportedly inconsistent.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

There are no known sovereign wealth funds in Laos.

The Lao government maintains ownership stakes in key sectors of the economy such as telecommunications, energy, finance, airlines, and mining. Where state interests conflict with private ownership, the state is in a position of advantage.

There is no centralized, publicly available list of Lao State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). The Lao government’s most recent figures report that there are now only 68 SOEs in Lao, but were unable to provide the value of the assets they hold. The government occasionally floats the idea of increasing private ownership in SOEs such as Lao Airlines through partial listings on the LSX, or spinning off parts of larger enterprises, such as the state electrical utility, EDL.

The government has not specified a code or policy for its management of SOEs and has not adopted OECD guidelines for Corporate Governance of SOEs. There is no single government body that oversees SOEs. Several separate government entities exercise SOE ownership in different industries. SOE senior management does not uniformly report to a line minister. Comprehensive information on boards of directors or their independence is not publicly available. While there is scant evidence one way or the other, private businesses generally assume that court decisions would favor an SOE over another party in an investment dispute.

Privatization Program

There is no formal SOE privatization program, though Prime Minister Thongloun has openly discussed subjecting some SOEs to greater competition and possible privatization. The government has over the past several years occasionally floated ideas of increasing private ownership in some SOEs through partial listings on the LSX, or through spinning off and privatizing parts of others.

There is low general awareness of responsible business conduct (RBC) and corporate social responsibility (CSR). There is no systematic government or NGO monitoring of RBC. RBC is not generally included in the government’s investment policy formulations.

Corruption is a serious problem in Laos that affects all levels of the economy. The Lao government has developed several anti-corruption laws but enforcement remains weak. According to the state inspection authority, the Lao Government has prosecuted some individuals for corruption, but reports are made only to the National Assembly and press coverage of such National Assembly sessions tends to cover the issue broadly without giving details. Since assuming office in early 2016, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has put a renewed focus on government anti-corruption efforts. In September 2009, Laos ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption.

Domestic and international firms have repeatedly identified corruption as a problem in the business environment and a major detractor for international firms exploring investment or business activities in the local market.

The Lao State Inspection and Anti-Corruption Authority (SIAA), an independent, ministry-level body, is charged with analyzing corruption at the national level and serves as a central office for gathering details and evidence of suspected corruption. Additionally, each ministry and province contains an SIAA office independent from the organization in which it is housed. These SIAA offices feed into the SIAA’s central system.

According to Lao law, both giving and accepting bribes are criminal acts punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. Nonetheless, foreign businesses frequently cite corruption as an obstacle to operating in Laos. Often characterized as a fee for urgent service, officials commonly accept bribes for the purpose of approving or expediting applications. Laos is not a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery.

In 2014 an asset declaration regime entered into force for government officials, requiring them to declare income, assets and debts for themselves and their family members; this was further strengthened in 2017 and 2018. Officials are required to file a declaration of assets valued over USD 2,500, including land, structures, vehicles and equipment, as well as cash, gold, and financial instruments, which is reportedly held privately and securely by the government. If a corruption complaint is made against an official, the SIAA can compare the sealed declaration with the official’s current wealth. Whether this program has worked or is working in practice remains unclear.

Resources to Report Corruption

Contact at government agency or agencies are responsible for combating corruption:

Mr. Viengkeo PhonAsa,
Director General
Anti-Corruption Department, State Inspection and Anti-Corruption Authority
Sivilay Village, Xaythany District, Vientiane Capital, 13th South Road
Tel: office: 021 715006, 021 715010; cell: 020 2222 5432

Laos is generally a peaceful and politically stable country. The risk of political violence directed at foreign enterprises or businesspersons is low. However, a string of unexplained attacks on vehicles traveling in the area of Xaysomboun province in late 2015 and 2016 caused several diplomatic missions to issue warnings to their citizens to avoid the area and at least one major mining company to alter its security stance. The motives for the attacks remain unclear, and there were no new reports of violence in 2017 or early 2018. There has been little-to-no political violence in the last decade.

Despite Laos’ young population, approximately 70 percent of which are 30 years of age or younger, the labor market remains tight with employers reporting shortages of labor at all levels. The World Bank reported in 2014 that nearly half of advertisements for low-skilled workers in Laos receive no applications.

The government enacted a new labor law in late 2014 that established many new protections for workers. It also contained provisions aimed at increasing the skills of the Lao labor force and established stricter provisions on the hiring of foreign workers.

The new law authorized also independent worker’s groups to elect their own leaders and to represent their interests and engage in collective bargaining on their behalf. The Lao Federation of Trade Unions, which is associated with the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, is the primary representative of labor and represents workers in tripartite processes. Laos’ National Assembly passed a new Trade Union Law in November 2017 but the impact of the new law on the labor market and foreign investors has yet to be determined. No official English translations of the final Trade Union Law are currently available.

Child labor is outlawed except under very strict, limited conditions that ensure no interference with the child’s education or physical wellbeing. The 2014 law outlaws several forms of employment discrimination and provides standards for work hours. The minimum wage is set by separate regulation. The new law established occupational health and safety standards, but inspections remain inconsistent. An International Labor Organization project undertaken in 2015 and 2016 trained labor inspectors in basic practices, with particular focus on the garment industry.

Foreign investors using a concession as the investment vehicle are reportedly able to negotiate the percentage of foreign labor to be used in the investment. However, labor standards such as minimum wage and health and safety standards should apply uniformly regardless of investment vehicle or use of a special economic zone.

The new labor law authorizes strikes if several steps of dispute resolution fail; however, there is no record of a strike occurring in Laos. A cultural distaste for open confrontation and the general shortage of labor continue to make strikes highly unlikely.

Employment contracts are required under the labor law, but are rarely used in practice. As of early 2016, the government continued to work on new regulations relating to labor dispute resolution.

Collective bargaining is typically undertaken by representatives of the Lao Federation of Trade Unions, though the 2014 labor law also provides the elected representative of independent worker’s groups the ability to negotiate their own collective bargaining agreements with employers. Basic and subsistence agriculture, informal businesses, and small family businesses make up the vast majority of employment, thus collective bargaining is relatively rare in the overall economy and unfamiliar to many.

The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and Laos signed a bilateral agreement in 1996. OPIC currently has no exposure in Laos, but the organization is actively exploring options for programing in the country.

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy

Host Country Statistical Source* USG or International Statistical Source USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (M USD ) 2017 USD 17,067 2016 USD 15,806 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical Source* USG or International Statistical Source USG or international Source of data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country (M USD , stock positions) 2017 USD 57.744
N/A BEA data available at
Host country’s FDI in the United States (M USD , stock positions) N/A BEA data available at
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A

*Local GDP statistics from National Institute of Economic Research, investment statistics from Ministry of Planning and Investment.
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI

Data not available.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment

Data not available.

Athnasak Sisouk
Economic and Commercial Specialist
U.S. Embassy, Km 9, Tha Deua Rd, Vientiane Laos
(+856) 21 487-000

2018 Investment Climate Statements: Laos
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