JAKARTA, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Indonesian consumers are increasingly opening their wallets, sustaining the country’s solid economic growth, but some retailers worry the government may dash the good fortune by imposing restrictions on them.
Last year, Indonesia’s mining boom was ended, partly because the government set new foreign-ownership rules, taxes and extra layers of red tape for the industry. The changes, intended to boost domestic investment in mineral refining, hurt small miners and explorers.
Now, Indonesian policymakers are eyeing the lightly regulated, burgeoning consumer and retail sectors - the mainstay of Southeast Asia’s largest economy - as they seek to lift tax revenue as well as build up local investment and manufacturing.
The government has made rules that limit the number of outlets that foreign franchised brands such as Starbucks can control, and it has added red tape to imports of handphones made overseas by the likes of Samsung Electronics . Authorities want retailers to sell more local goods.
The moves appear to be the latest salvo to promote nationalistic policies ahead of elections in 2014. Earlier steps have worsened terms for foreign resource firms and cut, to 40 percent from 99 percent, the maximum stake a foreign bank can buy in an Indonesian one.
Restrictions on imported consumer goods may limit opportunities for foreign investors in a promising sector and raise prices for consumers.
“When the ideology and the drive to raise revenues come together, it’s a dangerous combination for the consumer,” said Douglas Ramage, Indonesia managing director for business consultancy Bower Group Asia, which has consumer firms as clients. “They are targeting the consumer sector, which is also the fastest growing.”
There has been some pushback. The United States has filed a complaint at the World Trade Organisation, challenging Jakarta’s rules on plant and animal imports, while the OECD has called for reform of its food import policy.
At this stage, Indonesia remains a magnet for foreign retailers, thanks to its buoyant growth and expanding middle class. Uniqlo, the clothing chain owned by Japan’s Fast Retailing Co Ltd, is opening in Jakarta by mid-year and other retailers want in.
Their desire is understandable. Consultant McKinsey & Co has said that if infrastructure and other obstacles to expansion are overcome, consumer spending in the world’s fourth most-populous nation could rise about 8 percent a year to $1.1 trillion by 2030.
But the government wants to cap how widely retailers can expand without giving ownership of some outlets to smaller local businesses.
“Retail, wholesale is an area where we would like to see more involvement and empowerment of small and medium enterprises,” Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan said this month about rules that will cap the number of branches a company with a foreign restaurant franchise can own to 250 within five years.
Among those to be affected is PT Fast Food International , an Indonesian company with more than 400 KFC outlets.
While not affecting sales, “the rule will slow down our expansion,” said Justinus Dalimin Juwono, a director, noting that many outlets “will have to be sold to a partner or investor”.
Juwono said that if his company can’t find a partner, it will ask the Trade Ministry for a waiver.
Wirjawan doesn’t see an adverse impact on foreign investment from the cap, saying, “I think it gives more clarity on where we’re going.”
The government has already gone the same way on convenience store franchises, giving them until October 2017 to trim the number of outlets they directly run to 150, with others needing sub-franchises.
This will be a challenge for Indonesia’s two big chains. Indomaret, controlled by the wealthy Salim family, has more than 5,000 outlets, while Alfamart, owned by PT Sumber Alfaria Trijaya, has more than 4,100 directly owned outlets and about 1,700 franchises.
Ceilings on outlet numbers are a concern for retailer Mitra Adiperkasa, trying to spread its franchised Starbucks, Burger King and Zara brands across the country.
Starbucks, with 141 Indonesia outlets, accounts for 12 percent of Mitra Adiperkasa’s profit, according to Deutsche Bank research. The world’s largest coffee chain does not allow sub-franchising, which could later crimp Mitra Adiperkasa’s growth, though the company thinks its brand mix can still ensure 20 percent annual sales gains.
Fetty Kwartati, a company executive, said that after the government revised mining policies, “this year there’s a lot of sexy stories on the consumer sector as a driver of the economy, so that may be why they are touching the sector.”
“They have a grand policy - later on local players must be very competitive,” she said. “They want to protect the local partner and knowledge transfer.”
Surging imports helped produce Indonesia’s first annual trade deficit in 2012, and the trade ministry is trying to contain some imports.
It has ruled that franchised stores and restaurants need to carry 80 percent “local content” - a team will supervise compliance - and is considering extending the policy to all retailers. That would help the economy’s trade imbalance but could be a problem for brands manufacturing overseas, unless they can get exemptions.
The ministry has also revised rules on imports of handphones and computers, from mid-March, for a country that is a major market for BlackBerry, adding red tape and restricting such imports to certain ports and airports. It hopes firms such as Apple Inc supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd will start making smartphones domestically.
“The cellular phone industry is yet to be developed in Indonesia,” ministry spokeswoman Arlinda Imbangjaya said, adding that it expects industrialisation “will grow rapidly and in the end drive and create a healthy business climate.”
Alexander Rusli, CEO of Indosat, Indonesia’s second biggest telecoms provider, said local handset manufacturing should have been in place before the import regulations were revised. If the policy sequence isn’t right, “the black market will rise,” he said.
As well as driving local content, the government is also eyeing greater state revenue from the consumer sector. It has hiked excise tax on cigarettes - one in three Indonesians smoke - and is now considering a tax on soft drinks. Some lawmakers want to ban or further restrict sales of alcohol, which is already highly taxed.
If more products can be taxed, “that will be a bonus,” said Bambang Brodjonegoro, head of the finance ministry’s think-tank. (Additional reporting by Yayat Supriatna, Andjarsari Paramaditha and Rieka Rahadiana; Editing by Richard Borsuk)