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'Made in Vietnam' export boom defies Trump's trade threats

[HANOI] From mobile phones to furniture, Vietnam's export boom shows no signs of losing steam, defying a gloomy outlook at the beginning of the year when US President Donald Trump persisted with his trade threats.

Furniture maker Xuan Hoa Viet Nam Co. is planning for a 20 per cent increase in export orders next year by investing US$3 million on equipment to expand production, General Director Le Duy Anh said in an interview. The company, based near Hanoi, makes office tables and cabinets for clients including Ikea.

"I'm quite optimistic about our sales next year," Mr Anh said. "We have new customers in Europe while our regular clients also sent more orders than last year." When Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January, it was seen as a blow to Vietnam, which exports about a fifth of its goods to the world's largest economy. Instead, a global trade recovery and Vietnam's young and low-cost workforce have been magnets for international investors like Nestle SA, which have opened factories in the country this year. That's helping underpin its economy, which economists predict expanded 6.75 per cent this year ahead of data due Wednesday, among the fastest in the world.

"We've seen Vietnam's coming of age this decade with its rapid transformation to a manufacturing powerhouse," said Eugenia Victorino, an economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group in Singapore. "The diversification of products and markets provides a tailwind to exports. We are very bullish on growth, though we remain cautious of structural issues of legacy bad debts." The strength of the U.S. economy bodes well for Vietnam, which was the top exporter of goods last year among Southeast Asian nations.

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Nguyen Sy Hoe, deputy general director of Phu Tai Corp., which makes home furniture for Wal-Mart Stores Inc outlets in the US, forecasts a 30 per cent increase in exports next year. Phu Tai, based in a central province of Vietnam, relies on the U.S. for 40 per cent of its sales.

Vietnam's exports surged to a record US$177 billion last year, with US customers accounting for about 22 per cent of sales. Mobile phones and parts make up the biggest segment at about a fifth. Shipments abroad accounted for 90 per cent of GDP in 2015, compared with 64 percent a decade ago, according to the World Bank.

Xuan Hoa is buying three machines that make wooden furniture parts and equipment to make steel cabinets, Mr Anh said. The company is also boosting its workforce by 20 per cent with the hiring of 100 more laborers.

"We've increased production and are now preparing for the first shipment next quarter," Mr Anh said. "We're very prepared." Vietnam's government is counting on those shipments to bolster growth to as much as 6.7 per cent in 2018, the same goal for this year.

"There are some potential risks for next year that we need to be mindful of," said economist Vu Minh Khuong, Associate Professor at National University of Singapore, who is also a member of the newly-formed economic advisory team to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. "Downside factors may come from the US and some other international markets. But for now, the economy is resilient with good indicators."

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