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Vietnam’s cross-border cash arb entrepreneurs

Euromoney’s favourite tale of entrepreneurial exploitation of local arbitrage opportunities was, until recently, that of the Hong Kong businesswoman who apparently set up shop outside a well-known bar in drinking area Lan Kwai Fong during its 1990s’ heyday. Spotting that the bar was running a promotion whereby bearers of the Standard Chartered HK$10 note could redeem it for drinks at that (deeply discounted) price, she immediately acquired a stack of the bills and – so the possibly apocryphal tale goes – began flogging them to thirsty punters for the bargain price of $12.

A recent visit to Cambodia threw up a story of another arbitrage opportunity exploited, albeit on a much larger scale. Around the lunar New Year holiday, the head of a bank in Phnom Penh reported seeing increasing numbers of what turned out to be Vietnamese customers using his bank’s ATMs, each of them somewhat suspiciously using up to a dozen cash cards. Further investigation revealed these activities to be part of a brilliant exploitation of a gap in the market. Because of low overseas withdrawal fees charged by the Vietnamese bank Techcombank, citizens of that country found it immensely profitable to cross into Cambodia, withdraw dollars from local ATMs (at the official dong-dollar rate), and then return home and exchange the dollars for dong at the lucrative black market rate.

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