A quiet optimism returns to Indonesia

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When the combined effects of the Asian financial crisis and political upheaval ripped through Indonesia and its capital markets in 1998 the reaction from many of the world's big investment houses was predictable.

They quickly went into downsizing mode. Whole trading divisions were slashed or farmed out to local partners. Investment bankers and analysts packed up and moved to Singapore and Hong Kong.

Left behind were diminutive offices with rapidly growing expertise in how the Indonesian judicial system could help local tycoons evade billions in dollar-denominated debts.

But six years on with the September 20 finale of the country's first direct presidential election looming the mood is markedly different. For the first time since the crisis, Jakarta's investment community is growing.

International investment houses such as CLSA, CSFB, Deutsche Bank and UBS are quietly expanding their operations in Jakarta. For those of their staff who weathered the financial crisis and previous upturns in sentiment, this change has a unique flavour.

“It feels a lot different this time,” says Sarah-Jane Wagg, head of Indonesian equities for UBS and a nine-year veteran of the Jakarta financial market. “For the first time in a while we're seeing direct equity investors coming and taking a look around.”

The current reality is also that, while private consumption-driven growth is forecast to hit almost 5 per cent this year, Indonesia continues to suffer from disinvestment by foreign direct investors.

Plunges in both the rupiah and the Jakarta Stock Exchange's main index earlier this year, after an 18-month rally driven by interest from emerging market funds, also served as a reminder of the continuing vulnerability of Indonesian markets.

There is a growing expectation, however, that with elections proceeding peacefully and the picture improving slowly in the fight against age-old problems such as corruption and legal uncertainty, Indonesia is on the cusp of regaining at least some of the direct investment it so badly needs to spur economic growth.

While foreign direct investment approvals were down 35 per cent in the first half of this year, there are signs of a recovery in domestic investment. According to Rizal Prasetijo, head of research for JP Morgan in Jakarta, Indonesian banks' corporate loan books were up 18 per cent in the first half of the year while cement sales were up 9 per cent.

Within a year, says Michael Chambers, CLSA's head of research in Jakarta, the Indonesian market should see a growing number of initial public offerings, new share issues by established groups and the introduction to the market of vehicles such as real estate investment trusts and infrastructure funds.

Within one to two years, he argues, Indonesia's stock market should be returning to the $200m-$250m daily volumes it saw pre-crisis, up from the $120m volumes seen during the first seven months of this year and just $50m-$60m a year ago.

“It may be a year or two away. But even at $100m there's room for quite a few brokers here,” says Mr Chambers.

The scramble for trading commissions is prompting a bidding war for local talent. Deutsche Bank has recently re-entered the Indonesian equities market for the first time since 1998 by poaching UBS's local research team and deploying them in a joint venture.

But a marked upturn in stock market volumes still depends on foreign institutional investors finding the kind of investment story that drove the pre-crisis market, analysts say.

One of the main elements of the story will have to be an upturn in economic growth, which depends on the translation of what are now vague election promises into renewed efforts to tackle investment climate problems such as corruption.

Helman Sitohang, CSFB's country head for Indonesia, argues that neither of the presidential candidates, the incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri and frontrunner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, are market unfriendly options.

While emerging market funds regarded Indonesian equities as fundamentally undervalued, prompting the main Jakarta Stock Exchange index to jump by more than 60 per cent last year, they might now find that a political discount is justified.

But brokers seeking to benefit from a continued recovery remain sanguine. As Mr Sitohang puts it: “The approach now is: ‘Is this attractive? Is there a continuing upside?' And I think the answer is yes.”

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