If our world has any place that acts like a financial early warning system, it’s South Korea.
With high short-term debt levels and little to cushion it from destabilizing global events, Korea is often the first of the top 15 economies to zig, zag or hit an economic wall. At the moment, events on the ground suggest that Asia is fast running into trouble.
Korea was probably hit harder by Standard & Poor’s cut of the U.S.’s AAA credit rating than the U.S. Markets in Korea plunged, capital fled and credit-default swaps protecting public debt soared as U.S. Treasuries rallied.
Yet for many observers of Asia’s fourth-biggest economy, it’s not just financial turmoil they fear. Nor is it the threat a worldwide slowdown poses to Korea’s economic fundamentals, which are comparatively sound for now. What adds an unpredictable ingredient to the mix are Korea’s hyperactive regulators.
A case in point was Korea’s decision to join Greece in clamping down on short-selling of stocks. Every nation wants to reduce market volatility that might disrupt the broader economy. In Korea’s case, regulatory meddling unnerves investors as much as a shaky dollar, excessive debt in Europe or signs that China is overheating.
Nothing tells the story like the saga of Woori Finance Holdings Co., the country’s largest financial firm. Last week, Korea again was unable to sell its share of the company, parts of which have been under government ownership since 1999. Regulators dulled the company’s appeal by inflicting it with revolving-door chief executive officer syndrome. Until recently, it had a new one every couple of years.
The dire state of markets surely scared away some bidders. It complicates President Lee Myung Bak’s pledge to accelerate privatization efforts. Normally, a $4.8 billion offering like the one planned for Woori would entice investors seeking a capital base in an economy whose potential outshines that of most developing nations.
Yet foreign bidders are also well aware of the terms that come with any deal on Korean soil.
Critics look no further than Lone Star Funds, a U.S. private-equity fund. For more than five years, regulators have stymied Lone Star’s efforts to sell a stake it grabbed in Korea Exchange Bank in 2003 amid the fallout from the Asian crisis several years earlier.
A brouhaha over at Standard Chartered Plc also worries investors. Its staff has been striking for more than 50 days in the longest work stoppage in Korean banking history. The reason? Opposition to a proposed incentive-based pay system that would reward talent rather than seniority. This is something Korea needs.
Absence of Clarity
Investors want clarity in the Woori and Lone Star cases. They’re looking for definitive answers that suggest where Korea’s financial sector is heading in the next few years. Regulatory ambiguity helps explain why no foreign suitors stepped up to bid on Woori.
This is a big loss for Korea. The recent plunge in Korean markets may be a passing phenomenon, one that mainly reflects worries about U.S. and European growth. The reason capital flees from Korea so quickly is really a testament to its open markets. Investors who need cash to meet margin calls overseas can sell Korean assets easily. What’s sometimes forgotten is that Korea is among the first to bounce back when things calm down.
Fear of capital flight has caused all kinds of machinations in Seoul that confuse investors. Every few days, it seems, brings new directives on capital controls, taxation of bonds, stock trades, mergers among savings banks, the role of domestic brokerages, companies buying foreign-currency bonds, financial holding companies bidding for rivals or how many currency derivatives banks can hold.
Talk about micromanaging. The ad hoc nature of these steps probably makes matters worse for Korea. Why tempt investors who want to stay in won assets to leave? Foreign bankers I meet in Seoul all make a similar point: We are here and positive on Korea, but regulators need to relax.
Korea has lots going for it. It’s growing 3.4 percent a year, and with short-term interest rates at 3.25 percent, the Bank of Korea has latitude to pump liquidity into panicky markets. Yet as things go awry in global markets Korea is missing an opportunity.
Policy makers are right to want to stabilize the economy. And yet, with their actions they are doing the opposite.
As Asian markets seesaw, investors wonder if a repeat of 2008 is afoot. The difference between then and now, of course, is that the euro wasn’t crashing, S&P wasn’t downgrading the biggest economy and governments had more fiscal ammunition. The next crisis would be one with fewer shock absorbers.
The modern-day gold rush -- the metal on Monday closed at a record $1,891.90 an ounce -- speaks to the loss of confidence in paper assets. In Korea, households are buzzing about an even more basic metric of confidence: suicide. Asia’s crash 14 years ago saw a shocking rise in the number of investors taking their lives, shamed and depressed by the losses they suffered. Korean media spent the past weekend detailing a fresh wave of investors killing themselves amid huge market reverses.
Let’s hope that Korea is able to defy its legacy as a global bellwether, if only for the sake of those who might succumb to personal despair.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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