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Uncommon Sense: Southeast Asia: The Next Big Bet
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Uncommon Sense: Southeast Asia: The Next Big Bet

If you want to understand the fundamental economic changes happening in Southeast Asia, a good place to start is Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, on the shores of the Yangon River.

Amid the fishing boats, the dock workers and the roadside vendors sits an old industrial warehouse that has been transformed into Transit Shed 1. Part exhibition space and part retail venture, TS1, as it is known, was created by a well-heeled, well-travelled Myanmar businessman.

A recent Wall Street Journal article described how “socialites from Hong Kong, London and beyond … gingerly tread on the dirt track,” making the trek to TS1 to sip champagne with Myanmar’s new elite.

This scene of makeshift luxury tells a particular story right now: A story of tremendous change, booming optimism, local innovation and sometimes jarring diversity.

Make no mistake, Southeast Asia is on the rise.

Four years ago, Asian markets overtook the U.S. to lead the world in global market capitalization. Today, Asian central banks hold two-thirds of the world’s foreign currency reserves. And by 2020, Singapore—which has the highest concentration of millionaires per capita—is predicted to overtake Switzerland as the largest offshore wealth hub.

Within Asia, the big bets right now are the ASEAN markets (Association of South East Asian Nations). If you’re only focusing on China and India, you are overlooking some truly high-growth opportunities.

Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s most confident, connected consumers. In the most recent global Nielsen Consumer Confidence Index, three ASEAN markets (Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand) featured in the top 10.

Population growth is also booming. By 2025, the ASEAN region will add an estimated 327 million consumers to its population—a number larger than the entire population of the U.S. And the region is betting heavily on itself, with US$583 billion in business infrastructure spending slated by 2020.

As population expansion drives consumer power in Asia, so too does the expansion of wealth. The numbers of those who will join the consumer, or middle-class, or the ranks of ultra-high-net-worth individuals by 2025 are staggering. We see the consumer/middle class growing from 30% of the population to 55% by 2025, and the ultra-high-net-worth group tripling, from 1% to 3%.

Nielsen forecasts indicate that wealth in Singapore will double by 2020, which is actually much slower than what’s predicted for other ASEAN markets: Malaysia’s wealth will be nearly two and a half times larger by 2020; Thailand’s and the Philippines’ will nearly triple; and Indonesia’s will be almost four times higher.

As the wealth of the ASEAN consumer expands, we are seeing a shift in their attitudes and mindset.

While consumers in regions such as Eastern Europe prefer to stick to the basics, despite economic growth, the ASEAN consumer shows a desire to spend beyond the necessities: 47% of ASEAN respondents to a recent Nielsen online global survey say they are able to live comfortably, compared with the global average of 42%. And 17% say they are able to spend freely, compared to the global average of 14%. Indonesia in particular is leading the way: More than one-third of Indonesian respondents (35%) say they are able to spend freely.

What does “living comfortably” and “spending freely” mean to these consumers? Their choices reflect their growing affluence: They are savvy, discerning and seek quality over low cost. For them, it is about making bespoke, unique and personal choices that reflect their rising social status.

When you look at Asia’s top 1,000 brands, the top of the list is increasingly dominated by luxury and digital categories. Five years ago, there were just two luxury brands in the top 100. This year, there were 13 in the top 100 and five in the top 30. At the top of the list: digital stalwarts Samsung, Sony and Apple.

The ASEAN consumer is aspirational, future-oriented and confident, with a desire to spend freely and to express him- or herself through luxury purchases. And as a region, these markets have a growing population, growing wealth and booming optimism.

For those looking to carve out niche new markets and tap new opportunities, this is the place to make the big bets.