Friday, July 26, 2013

Indian investments in Korea: A wealth of opportunity

First published in The Hindu Business Line, July 25th
Sandwiched between China and Japan, Korea somehow has escaped the sweep of Indian businesses seeking to expand in East Asia. The ‘Look East’ policy seems to somehow overlook the most stable economy in the region.

In the last fiscal, Indian direct investment in Korea, as tracked by the Reserve Bank of India, amounted to only $3.51 million. In comparison, investments in China were pegged at $66.68 million and in Japan at $19.21 million.

In other words, the data on Indian ODI show that investments in Korea were just 3.93 per cent of the total investments in the Big-3 East Asian economies, even three years after the signing of the India-Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), a de facto free trade agreement.

It was widely anticipated that the CEPA that came into effect in January 2010 would lead to more Indian investments in Korea. Seoul has abolished the import tariff of 93 per cent on Indian imports and India has done the same on 75 per cent of Korean imports. Besides, the agreement sought to increase the interactive trade account as it includes investment in various sectors such as goods, services and even intellectual property.

While bilateral trade has comparatively improved (with a target of $30 billion by 2014), few Indian companies have used the deal to make inroads into the Korean market.

To date, the cumulative investment is estimated to be a little over $1 billion, with most of it hardly having any connection to the CEPA. Among the noticeable investors are Tata Motors (which acquired Daewoo Commercial Vehicle in 2004), Novelis Inc., a subsidiary of Hindalco Industries Ltd (which acquired Alcan Taihan Aluminum Limited in January 2005) and Mahindra and Mahindra (which acquired Ssangyong Motors in March 2011). Nakhoda Ltd. and Creative are the other smaller investors.

While Indian software companies such as TCS, Wipro and L&T Infotech have a small presence in Korea (with representative offices), they have not made any large commitments.

The only noticeable change in the past three years is the influx of professional workers, such as computer programmers and engineers, and a few English language instructors. Under the CEPA, 163 such professions are allowed access to the Korean services market. While a few years ago, it was difficult to spot Indians on the streets; today, it is not an uncommon sight.

Does it mean that Korea does not offer any potential for Indian businesses? On the contrary, as an FDI destination, the nation has several strengths compared to China and Japan.

As noted by Dr Ahn Choong-yong, Foreign Investment Ombudsman, KOTRA, in recent years Korea has emerged one of the prime investment locations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Its strong economic growth, increasingly favorable business environment, and rapid transformation into a truly knowledge-based information society have contributed to the creation of a wealth of investment opportunities.

It is also most active in pursuing FTAs with large economic blocs. Korea has already struck a deal with European Union, the US and ASEAN. These are helping foreign investors based in Korea to do business more effectively in the world market.

Also, among Korea's greatest strengths are its excellent pool of human resources and its optimal business environment.

To fulfill their globalization objectives, major multinational corporations also recognize Korea as an ideal destination for their production, logistics and R&D base.

Business operating costs in Korea are competitive due to the country's advanced IT infrastructure and low overhead costs including electricity and water. In particular, the basic monthly charge for Internet use in Korea is approximately a tenth that in China. Moreover, rental costs in Korea are also lower than in China, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In terms of tax rate comparisons, both corporate and income-tax rates in Korea are higher than in Singapore and Hong Kong, but lower than in Japan and China.

Recently, the World Bank ranked Korea No 8 (among 185 countries) in its Ease of Doing Business category for 2012.

This sheds light on how easy or difficult it is for entrepreneurs to open and run a business when complying with relevant regulations.

It measures and tracks changes in regulations affecting 11 areas in the lifecycle of a business: Starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts, resolving insolvency, and employing workers.

It makes much better sense to identify appropriate industries and then invest in Korea rather than following the bandwagon to China.

Many sectors provide ample opportunities for Indian investments.

Indian suppliers with products that have eliminated or lower tariffs from the CEPA should actively look for business with Korean partners.

Indian buyers should also keep in mind that they can obtain high quality Korean goods at a better price through the tariff reduction. Financial and legal services, auto-parts, food, pharmaceuticals, fashion and textiles, and IT are just some of the areas Indian businesses should start considering.

Korea is seen as a stable springboard to jump into East Asia, and Indian businesses should not miss it.