Economist Magazine Conf. on Korea (2): Import Competition Needed!




Part one is here, where I argued that Korea is too mercantilist-corporatist and that Korean consumers carry the costs of that statism with their 155% household debt-to-income ratio. I published an op-ed based on these posts also, at the JoongAng Daily here.

b. When the idea of Korean banks functioning globally arose, the Korean speakers argued for a mega-bank so that Korea could ‘compete’ and support its MNCs overseas. Again the idea that Korea as entity must compete against other states and ‘their’ MNCs is a fundamentally mercantilist notion. Korea is not competing against anyone, in the liberal view. Firms compete, and consumers, as rational buyers weighing quality against cost, should not buy ‘nationalistically.’ No one said anything like this: that Korea’s banks should simply evolve as they pursue profitability and if some of them M&A into a mega-bank, then ok. Instead, the state officials (not private bankers) were saying Korea needed a ‘mega-bank.’ Sounds an awful lot like another flag-carrying national champion, like Samsung, or Air France, with lots of cheap government capital and buddies in the bureaucracy, no? One of the Economist hosts thankfully had the temerity to call this a ‘vanity project.’ Hah! That was the most insightful line of the day.

c. Next up was was the limits on foreign penetration into the Korean bond market. Preventing foreigners from buying your debt is a classic form of financial mercantilism. The Japanese have been doing this for years in order to retain the yen as an autonomous domestic policy tool. This is why Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the highest in the world, but its bond rating stays high – all that debt is ‘in-house.’ The Japanese refused to internationalize the yen, because that means foreigners, especially Wall Street and the IMF, get a bigger say in how you run your economy. Witness the Greece meltdown today, and the increasing usurpation of Greek economic autonomy by Germany, the ECB, and the IMF, because so many foreigners own Greek debt. Nationalist-statist Asians would never permit that level of internationalization. They are too obsessed with sovereignty to resolve the ‘trilemma’ with Friedman’s ‘golden straightjacket.’ The Chinese also do this – selling bonds to domestic firms and banks at ridiculously low interest (so treating Chinese depositors as a slush fund for cheap capital) and preventing the RMB from off-shoring. And Korea does it too. It has repeatedly been kept off the World Government Bond Index, because of its ‘macroprudential capital controls’ – a euphemism for the ROKG’s closure of the kimchi bond market when too many foreigners started buying them because the won is undervalued.

d. Another missed opportunity was inflation. Korean inflation is now over 5%! That is twice the Bank of Korea’s (BoK) target. There is strong suspicion that this is coming from ROKG F/X ‘fine-tuning’ – pardon me – ‘smoothing.’ Among other things, Korean consumer spending is not exploding and so pushing up prices. In fact, it is the opposite, because Korea’s consumer debt (155% of income) is one of the highest in the world. Nor is the BoK monetizing Korea’s debt, another fairly typical inflation-accelerator. Korea’s debt and deficit are low and under control. This suggests that F/X fine-tuning/smoothing/whatever you want to call competitive devaluation (ie, buying dollars and selling won) is what is driving up the money supply. Yet the speakers told us that inflation had to be balanced against growth, i.e., don’t expect an big interest rate hike. This sentiment makes sense in the low-growth US or euro-zone, but not 4%-growth-a-year Korea. So Korean consumers once again get the shaft with a depreciating currency coupled with crushing personal debt. Tell me again that Korea is not a corporate oligarchy punishing consumer and SMEs to reward mega-exporters?

In the end, the back-and-forth was too congenial, allowing too many of the speakers to spin and duck hard issues. Last year I thought the questioners pushed Korean officials a lot harder. It was disappointing this time, maybe because the officialdom level was higher this time. Who wants to publicly challenge the finance minister? Last year was indirectly revealing for the way Korean officials bobbed-and-weaved to avoid answering hard questions about capital controls. This signaled pretty clearly that they were in fact competitively devaluing the won.

This year, no one really tried much. I pushed a bit. I asked a troublesome question – does the Korean government sterilize the won’s appreciation at the behest of Korea’s big exporters? (The right answer is yes.) I have written about this before (here and here), and variants of this question were asked last year too. But my official didn’t try hard. It was spin; he didn’t even make reference to the chaebol in his answer, even though lots of people in the room were convinced (because variants of my questions popped up all day) that they they are the ones pulling the F/X strings to keep export prices low. But no one answered it really. In fact, not one Korean speaker even used the word chaebol the whole day, which left me bemused and disappointed.

The most courageous question came from a Korean who asked a panel point-blank if Korea had the creativity and openness to foreigners necessary to really grasp globalization. This is a major issue; I argued last year that cultural hesitation, not technical or ideological barriers, is the real hurdle to the internationalization of the won. Yet none of the Korean panelists even blinked. A fog of silly disconfirmations about the creation of Hanguel or the (supposed) global popularity of K-pop and Korean food were thrown out to suggest Korean is a creative open economy. Yawn. At that point I overheard the Economist guys talking about how the same issues come up year and again regarding international finance and Korea, but nothing seems to happen. Exactly.

Filed under: Economics, Korea (South)

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