Thursday, December 4, 2014

Validity of deflation concerns in Korea

First published in The Korea Herald:

With the latest consumer price index showing a further decline in Korea’s inflation rate, the scaremongers are having a field day. While some suggest that the country is staring at deflation, others are going so far as to suggest that Korea has to brace itself for a “lost decade,” similar to what Japan faced.

A government report released on Tuesday showed that Korea’s consumer prices grew at the slowest pace in nine months in November. The CPI rose 1 percent last month from a year earlier, slowing from October’s 1.2 percent gain, the lowest rise since March.

The Statistics Korea data showed that from a month earlier, the price index also inched down 0.2 percent, the third straight on-month decline. The core inflation, which excludes volatile oil and food prices, rose 1.6 percent on-year, the slowest increase since August 2013, when it gained 1.5 percent.

Technically speaking, Korea is experiencing a period of temporary decrease in prices, or disinflation. Historically, the country has avoided long periods of declining prices, so it is natural that when it experiences disinflation, economists and policymakers start getting cautious. More so since just next door, Japan experienced disinflation in the first half of the 1990s, which expanded to deflation from 1994 through 2004, bogging down its economy; and therein lies the concern.

However, we should not start confusing the concepts of deflation and disinflation.

Deflation is characterized by a sustained aggregate fall in the Consumer Price Index or gross domestic product deflator. A sustained price fall can exert more or less permanent influence on a country’s economy with consumption and demand remaining sluggish.

The reasoning is simple: During deflation, if consumers and corporations expect prices to go down, they will often delay purchases, waiting for a better price, which in turn will dramatically slow down demand, causing prices to drop further. This leads to a downward spiral that reduces the circulation of money through the economy, which may limit growth.

Moreover, it generally occurs during long periods of high unemployment, industrial overcapacity, stagnant wages and falling labor costs. High unemployment leads to lower aggregate consumer demand for goods and services. As demand decreases, businesses generally lower the prices of their goods and services. Over time, lower prices can result in less cash flow and profits for companies, which then are inclined to reduce or postpone hiring and initiate layoffs.

The concerns of the deflation scaremongers in Korea are valid, no doubt, but at the ground level, there is a marked difference in what Korea is experiencing now and what Japan experienced in the ’90s.

True, prices are decreasing, economic growth is low and private consumption is down, but then there are valid explanations for these.

In Korea, the slowing price hikes are attributable in large part to falling international crude oil costs, which puts downward pressure on many product prices. The data referred to earlier showed that oil prices in November dropped 7.7 percent on-year and 2.7 percent on-month. Affected by the falling energy costs, factory product prices inched down 0.1 percent in November from a year earlier.

There are outside influences on core commodities that move prices and cause them to stay unnaturally low or high.

With regards to low GDP growth, any economic upheaval in China, the U.S or the eurozone has a great impact on Korea’s economy since it is mostly export-driven. That is precisely the reason for the slow growth.

The Korea International Trade Association has forecast that Korean exports will top the $600 billion mark for the first time ever in 2015 thanks to the faster pace of global economic growth and trade. The landmark figure represents a 4.3 percent increase from the expected $576 billion worth of goods to be exported this year.

There is not much the government can do directly on the trade front to revive the economy. It can, of course, try to stimulate the economy by reviving consumer demand, which it is trying to do. The results will take time and cannot happen overnight.

Further, as noted earlier, deflation generally occurs during long periods of high unemployment, industrial overcapacity, stagnant wages and falling labor costs. That is not the case in Korea.

The country’s official jobless rate was 3.2 percent in October, unchanged from the previous month and up from 2.8 percent a year earlier. The per capita real wage for salaried workers was 2.95 million won per month in the third quarter, inching up 0.08 percent from 2.94 million won over the same period last year.

The OECD seems to be more bullish on the Korean economy and policies than the local experts and economists. In its latest country report, the OECD forecast that Korea’s economy would grow 3.8 percent in 2015 on the back of the government’s fiscal stimulus and monetary policy easing. The inflation rate will reach 2.2 percent next year, private consumption will grow to 3 percent and exports may rise 4.9 percent.

The Bank of Korea still has room to become more aggressive in quantitative easing if growth continues to falter. On Dec. 11, the central bank is slated to announce its decision on whether it would further lower the current interest rate of 2 percent following previous rate cuts in August and October.

The irony is that while many experts are calling for more cuts now to stimulate the economy and avoid deflation, there are even more who are against it because of its impact on household debt. The BOK is damned if it does and damned if it does not.

Theoretically, deflation is hard to predict and almost impossible to verify until it has set in. It also makes it difficult to determine if it is really all that bad for the economy.

It may sound strange, but deflation can also be perceived to have positive effects. After the 2008 financial collapse of Ireland and the resulting recession, deflation was treated as a temporary condition that allowed for an improvement in competitiveness and balancing the budget. Additionally, moderate deflation may benefit savers and investors because the value of their assets appreciates and the immediate impact is an increase in purchasing power.

Either way, it is also possible that some deflation may be a normal part of our economic cycle, and is not always such a bad thing.


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