Papua New Guinea’s economy is now emerging from a period of hiatus following the completion of its massive liquefied gas project. Andrew Wilkins talks exclusively to some of PNG’S top executives to find out their views on the country's economic progress.
In May 2014, Papua New Guinea achieved what some thought it would never do—it joined the exclusive club of liquefied natural gas-exporting countries.
The US$19 billion Exxonmobil-led PNG LNG project, which achieved financial completion in early 2015 and is now bringing muchneeded revenue to the country, has not only put PNG into the top 15 LNG producers worldwide; it has put this fast-growing economy of just six million people firmly on the global map for business.
The completion of the project has had significant consequences.
Not only are there more LNG projects in the pipeline, with French ‘super major’ Total SA now in PNG (see page 27), but the construction over several years of such a large, worldclass gas development has lifted capabilities and skills across the economy.
‘We’re being encouraged that more and more people from the ANZ Group want to come to PNG,’ says Mark Baker, Managing Director of ANZ’S PNG operations. ‘PNG is seen in a positive sense for people … who are mid-career, who want to make a difference and want to get that exposure in a developing market.'’
PNG’S success has also, of course, raised expectations—both of what such large GDP growth, projected to be around 15.5% for 2015, can deliver to the people of PNG (85% of whom live outside the formal economy) and also from a business sector keen to see some of the impediments to growth addressed by government.
As our annual survey of PNG’S leading CEOS indicates (see page 10), there are still many constraints to growth in PNG’S economy, and many of these—unreliable utilities, law and order problems, lack of government capacity and red tape—fall under the remit of government.
The construction phase of the PNG LNG project, which was given understandable priority by government, accentuated some of these issues. Now construction is complete, resources are being directed to where they are badly needed.
The largest National Budget in PNG’S history was delivered by Treasurer Patrick Pruaitch at the end of 2014, with expenditure on infrastructure, education, health, and law and order now accounting for 50% of all expenditure.
Improved infrastructure will have a transformative effect on PNG’S typically high-cost business environment.
‘If we can get the infrastructure development right … it will create the opportunity for our manufacturing sector to start being more competitive.’
‘If we can get the infrastructure development right— whether it’s PNG Power with more effective, reliable and lower cost energy, or the ports for our international trade, or the highways—it will create the opportunity for our manufacturing sector to start being more competitive and increase their own investment in their plant infrastructure,’ notes Robin Fleming, Chief Executive Officer of Bank of South Pacific, PNG’S largest bank.
Progress in infrastructure
While the efficient disbursement of government funds remains a challenge, there are undoubted signs of progress.
The completion of the landmark development of PNG’S busiest commercial port in Lae at the end of 2014, completed with funding from the Asian Development Bank, will greatly
While that might have meant some lay-offs in 2014, 2015 is again looking positive.
‘We are expanding,’ confirms Mahesh Patel, Chairman of the CPL Group, PNG’S largest retailer. ‘We’re not going to slow down because we know it’s going to turn. Now, when is the million dollar question, because over 30 years I’ve been through this cycle three or four times.’
Managing business revenues has been made more challenging by falls in the value of PNG’S currency, the kina, against its major trading currency, the US dollar, and moves by the country’s central bank to manage that fall.
In June 2014, the Bank of Papua New Guinea set a higher value for the kina and also mandated a fixed trading band for the kina against the US dollar, effectively controlling the margins being made on foreign exchange transactions. The kina has continued fall since against the US dollar (although rising against the Australian dollar over the same period), but more slowly and without excessive volatility.
While this was seen as temporary measure—necessary until dollar revenues from the PNG LNG project start flowing—it was still in place in March 2015 and has undoubtedly had an impact.
‘It is a problem for many businesses in getting sufficient foreign currency to pay suppliers and get goods off the wharves,’ Greg Pawson, President of the Australia–papua New Guinea Business Council, told Business Advantage PNG in March 2015.
A weaker kina has made PNG’S vital agricultural commodities—palm oil, coffee and cocoa—somewhat more cost competitive internationally. Indeed, provisional Bank of PNG figures suggest the value of PNG’S agricultural imports increased year on year by 18% in the 12 months to 30 September 2014—an encouraging sign for rural producers, who still form the backbone of PNG’S economy (see page 50).
Marine exports also increased sharply in the September 2014 quarter—up 30% on the corresponding period in the previous year. This is a sector experiencing genuine growth in onshore value-adding (see page 47), provided issues of longterm sustainability in the Pacific fishery can be addressed.