Sunday, November 23, 2014

Win-win regional trade pact choices for Korea

First published in The Korea Herald.

After dillydallying for several years, China has thrown the cat among the pigeons by aggressively pushing for the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific at the recently concluded APEC summit in Beijing.

Threatened by China’s urgency, the United States, which has been driving its own Trans-Pacific Partnership minus China, was seen making backroom maneuvers to dilute any reference to the FTAAP in the Leaders’ Declaration. It did manage to take out the deadline of 2025 that was in the draft and what was finally released had no real specifics, except that a collective feasibility study will be concluded by 2016. 

The final declaration noted: “we decide to accelerate our efforts on realizing the FTAAP on the basis of the conclusion of the ongoing pathways, and affirm our commitment to the eventual realization of the FTAAP as early as possible by building on ongoing regional undertakings, which will contribute significantly to regional economic integration, sustained growth and common prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The idea of creating the FTAAP has been discussed for many years at the annual APEC gatherings, but it is only recently that China has stepped up diplomatic efforts. It would not be wrong to say that it wants to assert its economic clout and neutralize the U.S.’ efforts to forge the TPP in its own backyard.

“Having reached an important consensus on starting the FTAAP process ... What we should do now is translate the consensus into action,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his speech at the opening session of the summit on Nov. 11.

Just a day earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his desire to make the TPP a reality. “We’re going to keep on working to get it done,” he said, describing it as “the model for trade in the 21st century.”

While the two countries battle it out for influence, another regional trade agreement is slowly making progress ― the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The three RTAs ― the FTAAP, TTP and RCEP ― are all focused on the Asia-Pacific region. 

APEC ― comprised of 21 member states including China and the U.S. ― first formally began discussing the concept of the FTAAP at the 2006 Hanoi summit, although proposals for such an agreement have been around for a long time. In 2010, APEC leaders issued its “Pathways to FTAAP,” and instructed members to take concrete steps toward the realization of the RTA.

Over the past several years, members have discussed a broad range of issues relevant to the prospects for the deal, conducted analytical work, addressed a number of next-generation trade and investment issues, and undertaken sectoral initiatives. However, China was not really keen to push ahead with the deal.

Sensing this, in November 2011 the U.S and eight other countries (Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.S., Australia, Peru and Vietnam) formally announced the TPP, which is intended to “enhance trade and investment among the partner countries, to promote innovation, economic growth and development, and to support the creation and retention of jobs.”

Malaysia officially joined in October 2010, Canada and Mexico in October 2012, and Japan in July 2013.

So far 20 formal rounds of TPP negotiations have been held. However, the members have been unable to reach a consensus on a number of contentious issues like intellectual property and the liberalization of agricultural markets. Adding to this, the U.S. could not make forward progress because of political difficulties at home regarding the passage of a Trade Promotion Authority by Congress. Perhaps this is why China is suddenly showing interest in the FTAAP.

As for the RCEP, it is a proposed trade deal between 10 ASEAN member states: Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.

It was announced at the 19th ASEAN Summit in November 2011, and negotiations began a year later, aimed at concluding talks by end-2015. The sixth round of negotiations are due to take place in New Delhi in the first week of December. It remains to be seen whether the negotiations will be successful and the targeted deadline reached, which at present seems unlikely. 

So, where does that leave Korea in the grand scheme of things?

It is already a part of the FTAAP and RCEP, and has also expressed its interest in joining the TPP. While the two largest economies fight it out for dominance, Korea can gain by participating in all three RTAs. Even if one of them falls by the wayside, it has nothing to lose. Being an export-driven economy, it has already been actively pursuing FTAs with its biggest trading partners, and has made quite a few notable achievements.

It makes sense for Korea to ask to join the TPP as soon as possible, instead of sitting on the fence because of its bilateral issues with Japan. The country can pursue the TPP side by side with other RTAs since they are mostly complementary and will only reinforce each other.

Come to think of it, all three RTAs are quite different in scope. Experts have noted that the TPP deal is likely to be much more substantial in terms of depth of prospective trade liberalization and rule-making obligations compared to the other two. It includes stipulations for labor and environmental protection, intellectual property protection and rules for state-owned enterprises.

Compared to the TPP, the standards and degree of liberalization sought in the RCEP are low. The founding document states: “individual and diverse circumstances” of its members, and provisions on labor rights, intellectual property, SOEs and other behind-the-border issues will either be left out or only lightly addressed.”

However, the RCEP could produce significant economic results. The members represent 49 percent of the world’s population and account for 30 percent of world GDP. It also makes up 29 percent of world trade and 26 percent of world FDI inflows. 

Also, according to a recent study, the FTAAP would result in income gains of about $2 trillion, or nearly 2 percent of the world’s GDP in 2025. The biggest winners would be China, the U.S., Japan, Russia and Korea.

Whichever of these deals is wrapped up first will be the foundation for the next deal and finally the total economic integration of the Asia-Pacific region. Either way it is a win-win situation for Korea.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Shady projections on Korea-China FTA

First published in The Korea Herald.

Now that the dust has settled, and the free trade deal between Korea and China has been sealed, it is time to look at the validity of various claims being made on its economic impact once it is implemented sometime next year.

I am not referring to the merits or demerits of the FTA and the bruises to the agricultural sector, but to the economic projections that are being thrown around by the government officials.

There is no denying the high expectations for the trade deal compared to the FTAs with the U.S. and the European Union, since China is Korea’s largest trading partner, with a massive market. Moreover, it is bang next door, and offers a definite advantage compared to other economic blocs.

Under the deal, Korea will eliminate its tariffs on 79 percent of all products, or 9,690 items, imported from China within 10 years following the implementation of the deal. China, meanwhile, will eliminate its import duties on 71 percent, or 5,846 products, shipped from Korea over the same period.

On the face of it, this is an opportunity not to be missed. For this reason, the government ― which rushed to wrap up the deal, ignoring the side effects ― went to town after the announcement in Beijing on the sidelines of the APEC summit.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy immediately rushed in to state that the FTA was “expected to help boost the countries’ annual bilateral trade to $300 billion in 2015. This will mark a 39.5 percent hike from $215.1 billion in 2012. It will help bring Korea’s per capita income to over $30,000.” The ministry also said that as a result of the deal Korea’s gross domestic product would go up by 2-3 percent in the short term.

Reading this, I wondered on what basis the projections were made, and that got me digging. In the past 10 years since I settled in Seoul ― and, coincidentally, since Korea started along the path to becoming an FTA juggernaut ― these types of projections have been made by the government after every deal is inked.

From Korea’s first FTA with Chile to its latest with China, government officials have always highlighted the supposed impact on GDP, trade and per capita income. This was done when eight other FTA were implemented in the past decade ― including with major economies such as the United States, the European Union, India and ASEAN ― and even when FTAs with Colombia, Australia and Canada were concluded recently.

I have noticed a pattern in these “official economic projections.” All of them are from the joint feasibility studies that were conducted before the respective FTA negotiations began.

It is the Korean government’s usual practice to carry out a joint study with a candidate country to examine the feasibility of an FTA before it starts negotiations. The joint study ― normally done by the state-run Korea Institute for International Economic Policy and an institute from the partner country ― examines such issues as the economic effect of the FTA, sectorwise impact, the scope and coverage, and negotiating modalities.

When the joint study ends with the conclusion that the proposed FTA will bring benefits, a public hearing is held and then negotiations with the partner country commence. It takes several years for the negotiations to be completed and then many more months or years till they are finally ratified by the National Assembly and enforced.

The process for the Korea-China FTA started in November 2004 when former Chinese President Hu Jintao and former Korean President Roh Moo-hyun declared the launch of an unofficial feasibility study. Completed in 2006, this study concluded that the FTA would be mutually beneficial and a win-win for both countries.

In November 2006, both the countries then decided to upgrade the unofficial study to a joint study made by government, business and academia, which concluded in May 2010. After a public hearing in February 2012, official negotiations started and were wrapped up after 14 rounds in November 2014.

In other words, there was gap of four years since the report of the joint study was published and the deal was announced by President Park Geun-hye in Beijing on Nov. 10.

But that is not all. Interestingly, the joint study report ― a comprehensive and detailed 170 page analysis of the impact on various sectors and trade mechanisms ― did not use its own estimation based on any economic model to talk about the overall impact on the economy vis-a-vis GDP, bilateral trade and per capita income. It instead refered to the economic projections made by the earlier unofficial study conducted by the Development of Research Center of China and KIEP that was published in 2006. Moreover, the first analysis used the 2001 statistical database, which at that time was the latest updated version of the Global Trade Analysis Project model, to derive these projections.

I have no issue with the use of the GTAP model, which aggregates different levels of sectoral and regional details, but the date of the estimates and the statistics used raise a lot of questions about the validity of the projections being made today. More so because it shields a whopping 10 percent of all goods exchanged between the two sides from tariff abolition, the result of negotiators simply throwing out contentious items as they rushed to seal the deal.

While being gung ho about the FTA, the government relied on 13-year-old data and an 8-year-old analysis to make the claim about the economic impact. One can only take their assertions with a bucket load of salt.

We will have to wait for a more recent analysis by KIEP or any other reputed academic institution to gauge the actual economic impact of the agreement on the Korean economy. Even then, there are other economic variables and global economic situations that could come into play.

It is safer to keep the government macroeconomic projections on the deal at an arm’s length and concentrate on the sectorwise costs and benefits. Especially since there are still many hurdles to cross before the deal is ratified by the National Assembly and finally implemented.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Doing business in Korea ― going beyond ranking

First published in The Korea Herald.

A World Bank report released last week ranked South Korea as having the fifth-best business environment among 189 countries this year. Commendably, the country also topped the Group of 20 emerging and advanced countries and came in third among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries.

Between June 2013 and June 2014, “Doing Business 2015: Going Beyond Efficiency,” which measures 189 economies worldwide, documented 230 business reforms, with 145 aimed at reducing the complexity and cost of complying with business regulations, and 85 reforms aimed at strengthening legal institutions.

Only Singapore, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Denmark ranked higher than South Korea.

Not surprisingly, the Finance Ministry was elated. In an official statement, it noted that this is two notches above its rank in the previous year. What is more, all the Korean media outlets picked it up and highlighted it, without crosschecking.

The rank actually remains the same, after adjustment, the World Bank has noted. But that is just a minor issue, and we cannot really fault the Finance Ministry for glossing over the fact.

A closer look at the data, which the ministry has also ignored, suggests that not everything is as rosy as it is made out to be. The ministry has attributed this rank to “improvements in regulations and the system for starting a business, granting construction permits and protecting minor investors.”

This is not entirely true, if we take a look at what the data actually shows.

The factors that are scrutinized to compile the ranking include starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting minority investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency.

The World Bank data reveals that South Korea has slipped in many of these parameters. In starting a business, South Korea’s rank slid from 16th to 17th this year; for registering property, it slipped from 78th to 79th; for getting credit, it dropped six notches from 30th to 36th; and in paying taxes, it slipped from 24th to 25th.

The country’s rank is stagnant is other parameters such as dealing with construction permits, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency.

There is one parameter in which South Korea has shown improvement, and that is protecting minority investors. Its rank has climbed from 26th to 21st, but the country still has a long way to go.

It is only in providing electricity to businesses that South Korea is ranked first, and for that, the government can be proud.

These numbers beg the question: Has the situation really improved on the ground for investors wanting to start a business in South Korea? The figures speak for themselves.

The Finance Ministry said the improved ranking in business environment could have a “positive” impact on luring more foreign investment.

In the first half of 2014, South Korea’s FDI recorded historic highs for amounts declared and received. The amount declared was $10.33 billion, with annualized growth of 29.2 percent from $8 billion in the same period of 2013. The amount received was $7.2 billion, rising 55.9 percent from $4.62 billion on-year.

However, foreign investors do not just look at the overall rank when they explore opportunities here. They also get into the nitty gritty of all the issues outlined in the World Bank report, as well as the country’s labor market regulations.

If the government is serious about luring more investment and competing in Asia for investors, it has much left to do in terms of improving the business environment and raising South Korea’s rank in all the parameters.

As the World Bank has noted, a high overall ranking does mean that the government has created a regulatory environment conducive to operating a business. However, it added, “While this ranking tells much about the business environment in an economy, it does not tell the whole story. The ranking on the ease of doing business, and the underlying indicators, do not measure all aspects that matter to firms and investors or that affect the competitiveness of the economy.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Should South Korea join China-led AIIB?

First published in The Korea Herald.

South Korea, Australia and Indonesia were conspicuous by their absence in Beijing on Oct. 24, when China, India and 19 other countries signed a memorandum of understanding to launch the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank ― set to become one of the Asia-Pacific’s biggest lenders in the years to come.

While there is still time for the three countries to make a decision ― the AIIB will be operational only next year ― and they are keeping their options open, there is a real danger that they may not enjoy the same clout as they would have if they had joined the other Asian countries in Beijing. The case is more so for South Korea, whose economy is closely linked to other emerging Asian economies.

The Finance Ministry has officially stated that it has been speaking with China to request further consideration over details such as the AIIB’s governance and operational principles.

“We have continued to demand rationality in areas such as governance and safeguard issues, and there’s no reason not to join it,” Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan was quoted as saying.
Obviously, Korea is still in a dilemma on what sort of strategic choices it has to make as China and India together challenge the international economic order led by the U.S. and its Western allies.
Did South Korea do the right thing by refusing to commit itself immediately as a founding member?

On the surface ― there have been numerous media reports ― the three countries gave in to pressure from the U.S., which has raised questions about “the need for another funding agency to rival the World Bank and Asian Development Bank” as also concerns on “its governance, environmental standards and debt sustainability.”

Among the Asian countries, Japan has also kept its distance, but has not raised any eyebrows as was widely expected. It possesses the most influential and powerful voting power over the decision making of the $175 billion ADB along with the U.S., and is not rushed to support a new “rival” on the block.

Since its establishment in 1966, the ADB has played a clear complementary role to the World Bank in aiding infrastructure development and poverty alleviation in the region. Its main role is to make money available to member countries so they can implement their own development programs and provide working-level assistance in carrying them out.

In 2013, the ADB approved $10.19 billion in loans and $142 million in equity investments, and raised $12 billion in long- and medium-term funds.

However, if one looks at the shareholding pattern of the organization, it becomes clear that apart from Japan, the U.S. and its Western allies, the remaining emerging economies in Asia have very little say in the running of the organization that is meant for them. The ADB was modeled closely after the World Bank, and has a similar weighted voting system where votes are distributed in proportion to each member’s capital subscriptions.

As of December 2013, Japan had the highest percentage of shares at 15.7 percent with a voting share of 12.8 percent, followed by the U.S. with 15.6 percent (12.7 percent vote) and China, India, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, and Korea each with 5-6.5 percent of shares and a 4-5.5 percent vote. The European Union member states, if taken as a single block ― though they vote independently ― have a share of 14.4 percent with a voting share of 15.7 percent.

Since the ADB’s early days, critics have charged that Japan, the U.S. and its Western allies have extensive influence over lending, policy and staffing decisions. There is a feeling that these decisions are not always in the best interest of the other Asian countries.

It was therefore natural for China to push for the proposed $100 billion AIIB. After initial reluctance, India too has joined, along with Singapore and other regional heavyweights.

By becoming a founding member and having a greater stake in the organization, Korea could easily raise its economic clout in the region. The AIIB should not be seen as a rival to the ADB, but as a complementary organization.

As per the ADB’s estimates, developing Asian economies need to invest $8 trillion to 2020 just to keep pace with expected infrastructure needs, of which only a tiny portion is provided by the existing multilateral lenders. As such, the AIIB will be able to bridge the gap to a certain extent.

There is clearly room for a new development bank, specialized in financing large-scale economic infrastructure on commercial terms. The ADB does have the expertise to lend a lot more for infrastructure, but has moved in a different direction, focusing more on concessional lending and knowledge sharing with low-income countries, with the main goal being poverty alleviation. That leaves an important niche to be filled by the new organization.

It will also be more effective if the countries that are affected by its lending policies actually have a greater say in how it is run.

The MOU said authorized capital of the bank would be $100 billion and that the AIIB would be formally established by the end of 2015 with its headquarters in Beijing. China is set to be its largest shareholder with a stake of up to 50 percent, the remaining coming from other countries and the private sector.

If Korea has concerns about its governance, it should become a member and try to fix it. Not becoming a founding member of something like this could be a tactical blunder. This is the opportunity to grab a big stake and voting powers, before it is too late.

In any case, in a speech to delegates after the inauguration, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised the best practices. “For the AIIB, its operation needs to follow multilateral rules and procedures. We have also to learn from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and other existing multilateral development institutions in their good practices and useful experiences,” he said.

Refusing to take part in an effort to help Asian countries fix their infrastructure will only end up putting Korea in a very poor light ― particularly since, in the initial stages of development, it borrowed heavily from the ADB to shore up its own infrastructure.

Korea needs to continue to develop its relationship with broader Asia and be seen as a part of the development push instead of bowing to U.S. pressure. Moreover, joining the AIIB is in no way indicative of Korea’s stand on political issues in the region.