When I tell people in Hong Kong, London or New York that Bangladesh is a land of untapped business opportunities, there are usually some who'll raise their eyebrows in incredulity or admiration. For those who haven't visited in person, it's a country they only know from media headlines as a place of natural calamities and social pressures as the population expands.
Fortunately, I'm finding that the sceptics and uninformed are increasingly in the minority. As the global business community focuses its attention on Asia, there's mounting interest in Bangladesh for its skilled workforce, its thriving economy and the impressive export industry it's built in just over 40 years.
While acknowledging that Bangladesh still has much to do to realise the government's long-term vision, I believe the prospects here are quite bright. So does HSBC Commercial Banking, which handles over 8 percent of the country's international trade, and which recently showed Bangladesh to be the Asia-Pacific's second fastest-growing trade partner after Vietnam. In fact, our research indicates that Bangladesh's regional commerce will increase by more than 9 percent annually through to 2016.
Our confidence stems from what we see on the ground, in the cities and in the export processing zones, and from our expectations that Asia will increasingly sit at the heart of the global economy. Bangladesh now ranks higher than India, Indonesia and the Philippines in the World Bank's 'Doing Business' report, and it has nurtured companies producing goods for household brands including Levis, Nike, Raleigh and Sony.
Some have suggested that Bangladesh could become like Mexico, which has established itself as a low-cost manufacturing hub for its enormous neighbour to the north. In some ways the analogy is insufficient in that Bangladesh borders India and is also close to China - two economies HSBC thinks will become the world's third-largest and largest respectively by 2050. In other ways, the analogy exaggerates because by 2050, even after a seven-fold increase, we expect China's income per capita will only be 32 percent of that in the US.
What we know today is that Bangladesh is a competitive place to do business when benchmarked against its emerging market peers. It has clear cost advantages, and a committed young workforce that's keen to learn. With an increasing number of international companies relying on Bangladesh for the timely delivery of quality garments, the country has a medium-term opportunity to win manufacturing investment in this vital export sector. With economic austerity in the West making consumers there more cost-conscious, companies here have an opportunity to promote sales of affordable clothing while investing to rise up the value chain.
The challenge, of course, is that Bangladeshis want to increase their earning power. They want economic diversification that will bring new job opportunities while reducing the nation's reliance on apparel and expatriate remittances. This will require effort to build the infrastructure businesses need to capitalise on Bangladesh's location, and it will require effort to attract new industries and the skills transfer that comes with them.
Though the garment industry is likely to provide the backbone of the economy for some time to come, it's encouraging to see that companies making goods as diverse as camera lenses, shoes, mobile phone components and car parts have chosen to set up plants in the EPZs. Local entrepreneurs and investors from Canada to Taiwan are starting to recognise Bangladesh's potential as a location for light engineering, shipbuilding, agro-processing, pharmaceuticals and ICT. Samsung's recent opening of a research and development centre in Dhaka is a good case in point.
Like many local businesspeople, HSBC is watching with great interest as the governments of India and Bangladesh negotiate greater access to each other's road, rail, sea and air transport networks. For India, a deal will improve domestic links to its north-eastern states. For Bangladesh, it could help the country become a regional centre for trade and manufacturing, a gateway to the sea for Nepal and Bhutan, and the hub of a trans-Asia highway connecting India to China and South-East Asia.
Looking eastwards, Bangladesh is positioning itself to boost trade with China as China rebalances its economy from exports to sustainable domestic demand. Last year, HSBC helped a customer in the Dhaka EPZ to buy yarn from China in Chinese Renminbi. This deal was another sign of things to come, as Bangladeshi firms seek to cement relationships with Chinese partners, cut transaction costs and hedge foreign exchange risk in what is set to be the next global currency.
Clearly, I have to be balanced in my conversations with overseas companies. Bangladesh must ensure power supplies and communications networks are robust, for example, and it must recognise the competitive strengths of neighbours such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Pakistan.
As I also tell them, however, it's clear to me that there are few people who can match Bangladeshis for their resilience in the face of a challenge. If this country continues to reinforce its links with the developed world, while deepening relationships in the emerging markets, it has every reason to demand attention in biggest corporate boardrooms.
Noel Quinn is the head of commercial banking for HSBC Asia-Pacific and group general manager for HSBC Holdings.