Friday, January 20, 2012

Interview: Mr. Kwon Hyouk-se, Governor, Financial Supervisory Service

The Financial Supervisory Service was established on January 2, 1999, under the Act on the Establishment of Financial Supervisory Organizations by bringing together four supervisory bodies-Banking Supervisory Authority, Securities Supervisory Board, Insurance Supervisory Board, and Non-bank Supervisory Authority-into a single supervisory organization. The primary function of the FSS is examination and supervision of financial institutions but can extend to other oversight and enforcement functions as charged by the Financial Services Commission (the former Financial Supervisory Commission) and the Securities and Futures Commission. In an exclusive interview, Mr. Kwon Hyouk-se, Governor, FSS, speaks about his priorities, touching on many topics that are in the news.

Uncertainties in the global financial market continue due to the eurozone financial crisis. Can you briefly evaluate the Korean economy and financial market? The uncertainty emanating from the euro-zone debt crisis clearly has had a broadly dampening effect on global market outlook. To date, however, the overall extent of the impact of the debt crisis on the Korean economy and financial markets appears not as grave as initially feared. Korea’s exports continue to grow at a fairly steady pace, and the general expectation is that the economy will maintain growth momentum with improving employment and trade surplus. Looking ahead, a continued slowdown in the developed countries will likely mean slower export growth. Korea’s exports, however, are less dependent on these markets than in the past, so the overall growth trajectory should remain intact. In the financial markets, stock prices and exchange rates did fluctuate more than usual as was the case in other markets, but they are now settling down to more normal levels. I would also stress that the overall soundness indicators of financial institutions remain firm. Speaking more broadly, the declining proportion of short-term external borrowings in the banking sector and the sizable foreign currency reserve, currently in excess of USD300 billion, should leave no doubt about the strength of our foreign currency liquidity conditions. The introduction of hedges funds is seen by many as an innovative development if the Korean financial markets and acknowledge their economic utility, however detractors have also pointed out their risks. What are the measures to be implemented in order to minimize their potential side effect? Do you have plans to improve laws and regulations for the stable growth of the industry? Regulators imposed a 400% cap on leverage and derivatives trading of hedge funds against their assets as a way to minimize potential side effect. There are other similar checks and safeguards on hedge fund risk exposure, counter-party risk, and liquidity risk. Unlike global hedge funds, local hedge funds will start out as regulated entities. As the new funds take hold in the local investment market and become more established, there will be opportunities to take stock of where the market stands and whether more accommodating regulations are warranted. Most financial institutions in Korea have active Corporate Social Responsibility programs as they know they owe society and Korea a debt of gratitude. Do you think enough is being done? The spread of the anti-Wall Street protests in the U.S. and elsewhere is one manifestation of the general public’s desire for greater accountability and more socially responsible business conduct from the financial industry. In Korea, we do see financial institutions reducing their service fees and giving more to public causes to do their part as responsible corporate citizens. The general reception from ordinary citizens, however, seems be that the financial industry can and should do more, especially in doing away with arbitrary or heavy-handed industry-wide customs and practices that harm consumers. Less credit bias against the socially disadvantaged and low-income borrowers would also help. Since you took office, you have continuously emphasized the need for prudential supervision and financial consumer protection. Why? In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, financial consumer protection has emerged as a major policy priority worldwide. We see this in the common principles on consumer protection in the field of financial services that the OECD developed for all financial service sectors. As I alluded to earlier, the anti-Wall Street protests is just one of the growing calls on many fronts for better, more proportionate checks and balances on financial institutions for consumer protection as well. What financial institutions can draw from these developments is that consumer protection matters, matters enormously and that they should engage in an earnest effort to integrate consumer protection into their overall risk management from a long-term strategic perspective. Can you give us an evaluation of the progress made for financial consumer protection? What are the future directions? Because several mutual savings banks were on the verge of collapse when I took office, my early priority was to restore the public’s trust in financial institutions and to reinforce consumer protection. This led to the revamping of our organizational structure and the realignment of our supervision and enforcement focus to consumer protection so that we can better deal with anti-consumer practices. We have also expanded programs to improve consumer finance literacy and education. This year, we are going to take an aggressive stance on consumer protection as a key objective and commit ourselves to implementing the OECD principles on financial consumer protection. Under the KorEU FTA, both parties are expected to allow offshore data processing within 2 years from 1.7.2011 and additionally the FTA also calls for increased flexibility in allowing delegation of more back office function to onshore affiliates and offshore affiliates. The latter will require a change in business delegation regulations and licensing guidelines. What is the FSS’ position on this? The free trade agreements with the EU and the U.S. provide for offshore data processing for foreign financial institutions with some restrictions. For instance, restrictions may apply for certain types of customer data such as sensitive personal data in need of special care and protection and data deemed necessary for supervision purposes. It was also agreed that the implementation of offshore data processing would be suspended for two years when the agreements take effect to give time for fine-tuning of the supervisory processes and additional safeguards needed for handling of private information and preventing data breach. Following the ratification of the Korea-EU FTA by the National Assembly in July 2011, a task force comprising representatives from the Financial Services Commission and legal consultants has been working on a detailed implementation plan. The expectation is that the level of financial data to be allowed for offshore processing would be determined with an extensive review of private information protection policies at home and elsewhere and case studies of financial data protection and offshore data processing facilities in other jurisdictions. The FSS has recently urged banks to restrict the dividend pay-out ratio in order to further strengthen capital basis. In the cases of foreign banks (branches and subsidiaries) with only one shareholder, shouldn’t the FSS allow a little more flexibility in dividend pay-outs considering that the parent companies stand ready to inject capital as and when needed? The FSS is not contemplating any blank restriction on bank dividend pay-out practices, domestic or foreign. But there should be no argument about unjustifiably outsized dividend pay-outs that undermine the essential capacity to absorb losses or threaten the long-term capital soundness. Asset soundness and financial market conditions may deteriorate unexpectedly, and U.S. and European bank regulators nowadays keep a close eye on bank dividend plans and capital levels under various stress scenarios. This is a prudent step, and it makes sense for banks to set aside more when they can to strengthen their capital positions. In 2011, Korea’s financial market and FSS were marked by many big or small events. Can you tell us what was the most rewarding and memorable work progress this year? Regulators sought to keep financial markets calm and orderly by expediting resolution of the insolvent mutual savings banks and taking timely measures aimed at household debt growth and potential spillover effects from the euro-zone debt crisis. With regards to consumer protection, we significantly increased our supervisory resources and beefed up our internal oversight structures to better focus on such consumer priorities as more rational service fee structures. We also targeted small-cap share price manipulation (the so-called “theme-driven share trading), insurance fraud, loan fraud, and voice phishing as the four key consumer protection priority and reinforced our prevention efforts. In a move broadly aimed at revitalizing organizational culture and capability, we also carried out a large-scale personnel shuffling, brought about a clearer division between supervision and examination responsibilities, and sought to expand assistance to various disadvantaged groups. Briefly could you explain to us the supervisory policy and examination directions for 2012? The priority will be on safeguarding financial markets from disruptions that may be triggered by the euro-zone debt crisis. To this end, the FSS intends to step up monitoring of capital flows and encourage domestic banks to secure more foreign currency liquidity as an additional buffer against external risks. In addition, we are going to keep a close watch on the credit conditions of small- and medium-sized enterprises as well as industries especially vulnerable in a downward economic cycle such as construction, shipbuilding, and shipping. Our supervision of household debt growth will also continue in 2012. With more low-income households expected to come under financial pressure in 2012, we will continue to take strong supervision and enforcement actions against abusive business practices and conduct by financial firms. This will include more vigorous monitoring and supervision of private money lenders and consumer credit providers that prey on low-income borrowers. In terms of examination, we will be looking to improve the professional competence and efficacy of our safety and soundness examination. This means applying examination resources and intensity proportionate to the size of financial institutions. We will also intensify the scrutiny on abusive practices that harm consumers and small businesses. Financial firms will also be held to account for non-arm’s length transactions with large shareholders.