Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Economic impact of terrorist strikes

First published in The Korea Herald.

The recent dastardly terrorist attacks in Paris shocked the world, with countries scampering to tighten security in preparation for any eventuality.

Even countries like Korea that have had no terror attacks from Islamic jihadists have gone on high alert, and the administration is tightening measures to make sure that no untoward incident happens.

While the nation’s security, human casualties and material losses are important aspects of these inhumane attacks, what should also be considered is the economic impact of a terrorist strike -- especially on countries like Korea, which are highly dependent on a few sectors.

A study released last month by ratings agency Moody’s shows that terrorist attacks significantly weaken economic activity, with long-lasting effects on the economy.

The study measures the impact of terrorism on a country’s economic growth, investment growth, government expenditure and cost of government borrowing, according to the report “Terrorism Has a Long-lasting Negative Impact on Economic Activity and Government Borrowing Costs.”

“For example, in 2013 the 10 countries most affected by terrorism took an immediate and significant hit to growth, dampening GDP between 0.5 and 0.8 percentage points,” the report noted. “Even worse is that the negative impact continues for years after the attack, taking up to five years for the effects to peter out.”

Investment growth takes an even greater immediate hit, with Moody’s estimating for the same episodes that investment growth declines between 1.3 and 2.1 percentage points.

During the time period studied, terrorism was concentrated in a few countries. For example, more than 60 percent of all incidents in 2013 were in just four countries, with the majority of attacks occurring in Iraq (24 percent) and Pakistan (19 percent).

Terrorist events also materially dampen economic activity and investment in mature economies, the report noted. Moody’s analyzed the economic impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., the 2004 bombings in Spain and the 2005 bombings in the U.K., all of which resulted in significant human casualties and infrastructure damage. In each case, the effect on economic activity and investment was significant and lasted several years.

Moody’s study consisted of a sample of 156 countries between 1994 and 2013.

In another interesting study published in the International Monetary Fund’s Finance & Development journal in June, the authors reach the same conclusion.

“The effects of terrorism can be terrifyingly direct,” it notes. “But terrorism inflicts more than human casualties and material losses. It can also cause serious indirect harm to countries and economies by increasing the costs of economic transactions.”

The article explores the economic burden of terrorism, focusing on three: national income losses and growth-retarding effects, dampened foreign direct investment, and disparate effects on international trade.

It notes that rich, large and diversified economies are better able to withstand the effects of terrorist attacks than small, poor and more specialized economies.

Unfortunately, Korea falls into the specialized category given its dependence on just a few engines of growth.

The article states that specialized economies may not have such resilience. Resources such as labor or capital may either flow from an affected sector to less productive activities within the country or move to another country entirely.

“A terrorist attack against such a nation is likely to impose larger and more lasting macroeconomic costs.”

Increased terrorism in a particular area tends to depress the expected return on capital invested there, which shifts investment elsewhere. This reduces the stock of productive capital and the flow of productivity-enhancing technology to the affected nation.

The authors analyzed 78 developing economies over the period 1984–2008 and found that on average a relatively small increase in a country’s domestic terrorist incidents per 100,000 people sharply reduced net foreign direct investment.

There was a similarly large reduction in net investment when the terrorist incidents originated abroad or involved foreigners or foreign assets in the attacked country.

The study suggests a troubling association between terrorism and foreign direct investment, both of which are crucial for emerging economies.

“It is generally believed that there are higher risks in trading with a nation afflicted by terrorism, which cause an increase in transaction costs and tend to reduce trade.”

Although terrorism may reduce trade in a particular product because it increases transaction costs, its ultimate impact may be either to raise or reduce overall trade.

Terrorism also influences immigration and immigration policy. The traditional gains and losses from the international movement of labor may be magnified by national security considerations rooted in a terrorism response, the authors note.

These above-mentioned studies hold useful lessons for Korea, which is highly dependent on trade, tourism and private consumption to sustain growth.

As recent history has shown, the impact of a local tragedy on consumer sentiment in Korea is huge.

In the aftermath of the Sewol ferry tragedy -- where more than 300 people died when it sank on April 16 last year, most of them students -- the economy suffered when private consumption dropped drastically.

It plunged the country into deep mourning, dragging down economic growth -- the slowest for more than a year -- partly because of sluggish consumption.

Consumer sentiment struggled to recover for months after the incident and the fallout lasted longer than expected.

With consumer sentiment remaining feeble, companies delayed investment due to uncertainty over the economic outlook, further depressing the economy.

More recently, the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak in Korea dealt a severe blow to the tourism sector and dampened consumer spending, almost crippling the economy.

Thirty-three people here died from MERS since it was first detected in May, making it the largest outbreak outside the Middle East.

South Korea’s export-led economy, which has been hit by slowing global demand for its goods, together with sluggish consumer demand at home, certainly does not need another tragedy.

It is right of the government to take rigorous steps to prevent terror attacks, even though many may consider it a little over the top. The Korean economy is currently very fragile and the administration is on the right path.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Take gov’t projections with truckloads of salt

First published in Korea Herald.

A recent media statement issued by the Seoul Metropolitan Government that got wide coverage had me in splits.

According to the note that was issued to mark the 10th anniversary of the Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project -- which removed an elevated freeway and transformed it into a lush walkway through the heart of Seoul -- which was faithfully picked up by all of local media without any question, 190 million tourists annually visit the landmark.

“Some 190 million Koreans and tourists are estimated to have visited the stream since its restoration by former President Lee Myung-bak on Oct. 1, 2005. The number is expected to exceed 200 million by early next year.”

These figures were obviously cooked up by some government official and can be understandable to a certain degree -- making extrapolations based on certain data collected over a few days every year are part and parcel of economic studies. But what took the cake was the detailed breakup of the nationalities of people who visited the stream.

We are told that from 2011 to August this year, 1.8 million tourists from China, 399,000 from Thailand, 256,000 from Japan, 133,000 from Taiwan and the U.S. and 290,000 from the rest of the world visited the stream.

There are no details of how the estimation was arrived at or the methodology used. But that didn’t deter the news from getting wide coverage.

First, keep in mind that the stream is close to 6 km long with 22 bridges and has various entry points. Ordinary residents (including expats) who work in the bustling business district have to cross the stream whenever they leave their office to go for appointments, coffee, lunch or transit back home.

Second, there is no single entry point and entrance gate where one can sit and take count of the number of people visiting -- to extrapolate based on the average of a few days.

Third, since there is no entrance or record keeping, how can one be sure that the person who strolls across the stream is from China, India, North America, Europe or Timbuktu?

But the SMG was confident enough to dish out the numbers and the local media was complacent enough to take it at face value.

The reason I have brought this up is not because I do not trust the government. But I do not blindly trust what the Korean government officials say with regard to economic projections of their pet projects. No one should.

Recently, the government designated Aug. 14, a friday, as a temporary holiday -- since the actual 70th Liberation Day fell on Saturday -- to increase domestic consumption. Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan grandly announced that it would increase domestic spending to around 1.3 trillion won ($1.1 billion).

“When this happens, local companies will also earn more and will require more staff. In turn, they’ll need to hire more employees. The holiday will encourage a ‘halo effect’ throughout South Korea,” he said.

Absurd as it was -- one extra day off generating so much economic benefit to pull the country out of its economic misery -- no one questioned him.

The government logic was that it would enhance the people’s nationalism and encourage domestic consumption. With the economy greatly affected by the MERS outbreak and other external factors, it could use a boost -- in the form of a nationwide holiday with plenty of activities and events in store for the public as well as tourists.

No questions asked … the local economic reporters dutifully reported it, and it was taken as gospel.

Same thing happened with the “Korea Black Friday,” which was announced with much fanfare.

Unimaginatively named after the U.S.’ big shopping day after Thanksgiving, the largest-ever sale event -- involving about 26,000 stores encompassing department stores and online shopping malls from Oct. 1 to 14 -- was supposed to “revitalize the economy.” Nothing of that sort has happened.

When it was announced, no questions were asked. All the questions are being raised now when it has proved to be a damp squib and the government is scrambling to dub it a success.

The same goes for the government policies to ease youth unemployment -- the nation’s jobless rate for people between the ages of 15 and 29 came to 8 percent in August, much higher than the headline unemployment rate of 3.4 percent -- by forcing companies to introduce the wage peak system.

The wage peak system advocated by the government calls for people nearing retirement age to accept lower wages with the money saved by this arrangement to be used to hire new employees.

Many companies have announced the launch of this new wage system under pressure, but no one is asking how effective it will be in getting over the main problem -- youth unemployment.

I think it is a knee-jerk reaction and is not the “magic formula” to get the youth jobs. More so, when the announcements by the chaebol are just a headline-grabbing tactic with very little changing on the ground. As was the case with the “shared growth” hyperbole.

This trend is so common -- as observed in my 11 years as a business journalist here -- that one has learned not to go by news reports about economic projections of benefits that policies will achieve.

Not that questions are never raised. The editorial writers do a splendid job doing that and pointing out the lapses. But if local economic news articles have to get credibility, the reporters on the ground need to ask the uncomfortable questions to government officials before parroting their statements -- as they do in other advanced democracies -- without wondering whether they will upset the powers that be.

One can start trusting the government economic projections only when reporters -- not just editorial writers -- start confronting government officials with uncomfortable queries and get their response instead of simply reporting their grand promises.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Does Korea benefit from FTA with EU?

First published in The Korea Herald.

 July 1 marked the fourth anniversary of the EU-Korea free trade agreement, which entered into force in 2011. It was touted as the first of a new generation of FTAs, going further than any previous agreements in lifting trade barriers. Being also the EU’s first trade deal with an Asian country, Korea was expected to benefit immensely.
The agreement eliminated duties for industrial and agricultural goods in a progressive, step-by-step approach. The majority of import duties were removed already when the FTA entered into force. On July 1, 2016, import duties will be eliminated on all products except for a limited number of agricultural products.
In addition to eliminating duties on nearly all trade in goods, the FTA addresses nontariff barriers to trade with a specific focus on the automotive, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and electronics sectors.
It also creates new opportunities for market access in services and investments, and includes provisions in areas such as competition policy, government procurement, intellectual property rights, transparency in regulation and sustainable development.
All this has definitely had an impact on EU-Korea economic relations, with bilateral trade growing immensely. More European goods are now more visible in stores and many European companies have entered the market. In fact, the EU was the largest investor last year, injecting a total of $6.5 billion, followed by the United States ($3.6 billion), Singapore ($1.7 billion) and China ($1.2 billion).
This would seem to indicate that the deal is a tremendous success. But is it?

Looking back

The Korea-EU FTA reflects the larger trade strategies both sides have pursued from the beginning of the 21st century.

Prior to the mid-2000s, both were reluctant to enter into bilateral FTAs, preferring to conduct trade through the World Trade Organization and through regional preferential trade arrangements. However, they changed track and have been pursuing FTAs aggressively since.

The EU was a pioneer in negotiating preferential trade arrangements and used it to anchor trade relations with neighboring countries, such as members of the European Free Trade Area and as a transition mechanism in trade relations with countries slated to accede to the EU. The EU also employed PTAs to preserve preferential trade relationships with former colonies among developing countries.
The FTA with Korea was part of a new wave of EU FTAs and part of an overall strategy referred to as Global Europe that the European Commission announced in 2006. The strategy was developed to respond to the challenges faced by EU members in a rapidly globalizing economy. An objective of that strategy was to work towards reducing tariff and nontariff barriers in trade and to liberalize markets for foreign investment.
As part of the Global Europe strategy, the EU has engaged in FTA negotiations with the objective that the FTAs are more appropriate vehicles to address more trade complex issues and can serve as building blocks toward a more robust multilateral trading system.
The Global Europe strategy sets down two main criteria for selecting FTA partners: (1) that the partner country offers sufficient market potential and (2) a sufficient level of growth opportunities that would result from the removal of tariff and nontariff barriers as a result of the FTA. Based on these criteria, along with the fact that Korea had negotiated an agreement with the United States, the European Commission identified South Korea as a priority country for an FTA.
As for Korea, for nearly a decade, it was transforming itself into an FTA hub in Northeast Asia. Signing a network of FTAs was a key part of the national economic strategy of President Lee Myung-bak as well as his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun. Both presented FTAs as necessary for advancing Korea’s economic well-being.
Ongoing competitive pressure from Japanese firms, increased competition from Chinese enterprises and the rapid aging of the Korean workforce heightened the sense of urgency to boost national competitiveness.
President Lee set a goal of building a “free trade network” that by 2014 would enable over 70 percent of Korean exports to enjoy duty-free access. He explicitly tried to diversify the composition of Korea’s FTA partners, simultaneously negotiating FTAs with large advanced economies as well as with natural resource-rich developing countries.
The Korea-EU FTA also fit into his goal of creating the “Global Korea” by expanding Korea’s engagement with and presence in the international community.
As a result, negotiations were launched in 2007, and after more than two years of negotiations, both sides finally signed an agreement on October 6, 2010. Both the Korean National Assembly and the EU Parliament have ratified the agreement, and it went into effect on July 1, 2011.
In 2009, the year preceding the official signing of the deal, Korea accounted for 2 percent of EU merchandise exports, ranking 12th as an export market, and accounted for 3 percent of EU merchandise imports, ranking ninth as a source of EU imports.
On the other hand, the much larger EU market of 492 million people with a gross domestic product of $14.4 trillion was much more important to Korea. In 2009, the EU was the second-largest market for Korean merchandise exports, with a 13 percent share of total Korean exports, second to China with its 24 percent share.
The EU was the third-largest source of Korean imports in 2009 with a 10 percent share of Korean merchandise imports behind China with a 17 percent share and Japan with a 15 percent share. In contrast, the United States accounted for 10 percent of Korean exports and 9 percent of Korean imports.
Among the EU member countries, Korea’s largest trading partners were and continue to be Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

Plain statistics

In 2010, a year before the implementation of the FTA, bilateral trade amounted to $92.23 billion, with Korea having a trade surplus -- exports stood at $53.51 billion and imports from EU at $38.72 billion. By 2014, bilateral trade showed a growth of 23.65 percent to reach 114.05 billion. However, everything is not so rosy. Korea now has a trade deficit -- exports of 51.66 billion and imports of 62.39 billion.
This clearly indicates that Korean companies have not been able to take advantage of the deal to the same extent as EU companies.
This trend is also acknowledged by the European Commission in its annual report on the trade deal submitted to the European parliament and Council in March.
It noted that the EU’s share in Korea’s total imports from the world increased from 9 percent before the FTA to 11 percent in the third year of the FTA implementation. Over the same period of time, the EU‘s share in total exports from Korea declined from 11 percent to 9 percent.
In terms of EU exports, the most important categories of products were: “Machinery and appliances,” accounting for almost 34 percent of total EU exports to Korea; followed by “transport equipment,” where exports increased by over 56 percent and represent 16 percent of total EU exports to Korea.
“Chemical products”, where exports increased by 9 percent in the third year of FTA implementation, accounting for over 12 percent of total EU exports.
Other categories of products for which EU exports increased significantly since July 2011 are “mineral products,” “wood” and “pearls and precious metals.”
As far as EU imports from Korea are concerned, the main product categories are: “Machinery and appliances” accounting for 36 percent of EU imports from Korea -- they have declined by 20 percent since the FTA took effect; and “Transport equipment” accounting for 26 percent of total EU imports from Korea, showing fluctuating growth.
Significant increases were noted in plastics, mineral and chemical products.
The report also notes that EU exports of motor vehicles to Korea increased by 90 percent, accounting for 9 percent of total EU exports to Korea. On the other hand, EU imports of motor vehicles from Korea grew by 53 percent. Motor vehicles account for 11 percent of total EU imports from Korea.
EU exports of car parts to Korea increased by 6 percent since the 12-month period before the FTA, whereas EU imports from Korea of car parts increased by over 20 percent. Over the three-year period, the respective imports from the rest of the world increased by merely 3 percent.
That is as far as product classification goes, which clearly indicates that Korea’s exports are not really much diversified.
In fact another set of data also shows some disappointing results. If we look at the figures for the first half of the year starting from 2011, something strange can be seen. Bilateral trade between Korea and EU in the first six months of 2015 is actually less than the first half of 2011, before the trade deal was implemented. In 2011, bilateral trade amounted to 53.64 billion, while it registered 51.64 billion this year.
Taking a closer look, we can see that it is Korean exports to the EU that have drastically gone down, while EU imports into Korea have increased.
This is worrisome for Korean companies, which shows that the economic slump has affected them more than their counterparts in the EU. This certainly needs to be investigated by scholars.
In fact, according to a recent survey of 360 major companies in 18 EU member countries by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, more than seven out of 10 European companies are taking advantage of the FTA to promote their business opportunities.
The awareness of the Korea-EU FTA among European companies is far higher than that for the EU’s free trade deals with other countries.
Comparable figures were 35 percent for the EU-South Africa FTA, 34.7 percent for the EU-Mexico FTA, and 28.6 percent for the EU-Chile FTA, the survey showed.
About 34 percent of the respondents said they have increased imports of Korean products since the implementation of the bilateral free trade deal.

More efforts needed

Clearly, the Korean government has its task cut out for it to ensure that the effects of the trade deal benefit both sides. At present it appears to be one-sided.
Moreover, Korea’s exports to the EU are concentrated into a few sectors, such as ships, automobiles and electronics. These three sectors represent almost 60 percent of Korea’s total exports to the EU, in contrast to exports of other countries that are much more diversified. This requires attention.
As noted in a report by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, in order to take full advantage of the FTA, it is necessary to not only increase the utilization rate of tariff preferences, but also improve the business environment and productivity and upgrade industrial structures in Korea.
“With more countries committing themselves to comprehensive FTAs with the EU and the U.S. and Korea relocating more of their production bases abroad, it is more likely that exports from domestic production will be replaced by overseas production. As a result, Korea’s relative advantage as an early comer in the FTA is likely to be obsolete. In this context, it is necessary to increase the utilization rate of the FTAs in the short run and to use the FTA as occasions to strengthen industrial competitiveness in the long run,” the KIEP noted.

Pros and cons of Korea’s minimum wage law

First published in The Korea Herald.
The minimum wage in Korea has been set at 6,030 won ($5.30) for next year after weeks of debate, although the labor unions boycotted the government-led talks on the final day.
Labor union representatives walked out of a meeting of the Minimum Wage Council ― a trilateral committee of employers, employees and labor market experts to set the minimum wage through discussion ― on Wednesday. They were upset with the suggestion that there should be a cap on the increase in the minimum wage. However, the council went ahead and finalized an increase on the following day.
The Minimum Wage Act stipulates that at least one-third of all representatives on the council can decide on the rate if any party refuses to attend the negotiations more than once.
The new rate will be notified by the government on Aug. 5 after taking into consideration all objections to the finalized rate.
In Korea, the minimum wage is the lowest allowable gross wage per hour, regardless of employment status or nationality. There are some exceptions to this rule: Businesses that only employ family members or relatives living in the same residence; domestic service users; and seamen who are governed by the seamen act.
The unions initially demanded a 79 percent rise from the current minimum hourly wage of 5,580 won to 10,000 won, while employers ― represented by the Korea Employers Federation ― were pushing for a freeze. The unions lowered their demand to 8,100 won, and refused to budge from this stance, despite opposition from others on the council.
The minimum wage in Korea was raised by 7.1 percent this year from 5,210 won in 2014 ― it was 600 won in 1989 when the government formed the wage council. The latest hike, therefore, marks an 8.1 percent hike.
For comparison purposes, the minimum wage in the United States is $7.50, Japan $6.40 and the U.K. $10.
The KEF argues that the minimum wage has risen too rapidly and needs to be stabilized, voicing concerns over possible job losses and soaring production costs. On the other hand, the unions maintain that a hike would curb the nation’s income inequality and boost consumer spending.
So, who among them is right?
At face value, the logic of the unions seems right, as minimum wages protect workers from exploitation by employers and reduce poverty. Legal minimum wages are a government’s most direct policy lever for influencing wage levels, especially for workers with a weak bargaining position.
They also serve as a basic labor standard, alongside working-hours regulations and related provisions to ensure basic job-quality standards. And supporting low-wage earners is widely seen as important for promoting inclusive growth.
However, many economists do not think so. They believe that minimum wage laws cause unnecessary hardship for the very people they are supposed to help.

The argument is that while the law can set wages, it cannot guarantee jobs. The experience in most countries with a minimum wage law is that low-skilled workers are often priced out of the labor market. This is because employers typically are not willing to pay a worker more than the value of the additional product that he or she produces.
In fact, there are numerous studies using aggregate time-series data from a variety of countries that have found that minimum wage laws reduce employment.
If employers consider the wage floor too high, Workers whose productivity is valued less than the mandated wage will find jobs only in occupations not covered by the law or with employers willing to break it.
In Korea, we already have seen many highly publicized cases in recent months where nonregular and part-time workers were paid below the mandated wages until a public outcry made them reconsider.
In addition to making jobs hard to find, minimum wage laws may also harm workers by changing how they are compensated by cutting fringe benefits which are an important part of the total compensation package for many low-wage workers.
Studies have also found that the minimum wage increases generally redistribute income among low-income families rather than moving it from those with high incomes to those with low incomes.
As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has noted in a recent policy brief, minimum wages are common but controversial. Currently, 26 out of 34 OECD countries have statutory minimum wages.
“Views differ about whether such support is best provided through minimum wages, or closely related policies, such as government transfers,” it noted.
In recent years, policymakers in many countries have adjusted minimum wages in the context of high and increasingly persistent unemployment, stagnant or even declining average wages and, frequently, falling incomes especially among the poorest families.
“While minimum wages are intended to support low-wage workers, the cost of employing them can be at the heart of concerns that legal minimum might reduce employment, or damage the international competitiveness of domestic firms relying on low-skilled labor,” the brief noted
Further, tax burdens too have to be taken into account.
Even at the very bottom of the wage ladder, taxes and social levies can strongly reduce take-home pay. At the same time, taxes and other mandatory nonwage labor costs also push up the cost of employing minimum-wage workers.
By having an impact on labor costs and workers’ take-home pay, the overall tax burden has implications for how well minimum wages perform at supporting low-wage workers, while avoiding significant job losses.
Given the overwhelming evidence in numerous economic studies, the Korean trade unions should have softened their stringent position and worked out an increase to their satisfaction. By boycotting the talks, they did not do justice to young people and low-skilled workers.
While it is impractical to do away with the minimum wage, given the social realities in Korea, the government should also step in and ease the concerns of businesses.
Some countries have adopted specific measures to reduce the gap between the amounts an employer pays and the take-home pay that the worker receives. To lower employers’ costs, or to reduce risks of employment losses following minimum hikes, some have introduced tax rebates for firms employing minimum wage workers ― something the Korean government should consider.
More importantly, there needs to be efficient coordination between minimum wage policies and other redistribution measures by the government, notably taxes and transfers ― that are lacking in Korea.
These small steps could go a long way in protecting the interests of businesses as well as ordinary workers, given that the economy is struggling to recover and unemployment continues to be a major concern.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Impact of ARFP on Korea’s financial services

First published in The Korea Herald.

A very important development in the first week of June that will bring huge benefits to the financial services industry in Korea has gone largely unnoticed here.

Finance officials and regulators from six Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation members, including Korea, who are leading the development of the Asia Region Fund Passport concluded a week of meetings in Singapore to iron out the details of the proposal and announced that it was on track to be launched in 2016.

The countries ― also including Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand ― aim to cut down on incompatible or overlapping financial regulations that may hinder the marketing of managed funds between participating economies.

Six other APEC members ― Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam ― are also closely following the discussions on the rules and arrangements, hoping to join the initiative.

So what exactly is the ARFP, and why is it important?

Two years ago, finance ministers from Australia, Korea, New Zealand and Singapore signed a statement of intent on the establishment of the ARFP. Accordingly, it aims to “facilitate the growth and competitiveness of financial markets in the region and the fund management industry, creating a common framework that has the effect of reducing regulatory inconsistency and overlap faced by collective investment scheme operators seeking to offer collective investment schemes in multiple economies.”

Once it is established, fund managers in a participating economy will be able to offer a single product across multiple markets, which will result in a larger client base that will grow the fund size sufficiently to realize economies of scale.

At the same time, more competition, a higher number of funds and funds under management will help keep the fund sizes at an optimal level so as not to erode fund performance. Investors will also benefit from improved efficiency as direct access to offshore funds results in the elimination of an extra layer of fees and commissions charged by local operators.

According to the APEC Policy Support Unit, once the ARFP is fully up and running, it could save the region’s investors $20 billion annually in fund management costs, offer higher investment returns at the same or lower degrees of risk and encourage the establishment of locally domiciled funds that could create 170,000 jobs within five years.

In its study of the potential costs and benefits, the APEC unit said that following the introduction of the ARFP, using a conservative assumption of 20 percent increase per annum in assets under management over 5 years, almost all the involved Asian funds markets would achieve better efficiency.

Currently investors in some Asian economies have limited products available to them. This is due partly to strict regulations in those economies that have discouraged fund managers from distributing foreign funds in local markets. Without a broad range of foreign products to choose from, investors have to place the bulk of their funds in local products.

International portfolio diversification can facilitate the possibility of reducing risks only if values of cross-market correlations of returns are low. The benefits of a more optimal portfolio can be transferred to investors in the form of better returns for risks.

The ARFP can also bring significant benefits to the wider regional and global economies by supporting the recycling of savings toward productive investments that are critical for the region’s growth.

The benefits can also extend beyond financing investment needs. The ARFP can introduce to local funds industries foreign technical know-how, competitive pricing and higher standards of disclosure and performance. These promote efficiencies in the local fund industries, resulting in greater global competitiveness of the Asian funds management industry, the APEC unit has noted.

One of the measurable contributions of the ARFP to the economy is the potential increase in employment numbers in the funds industries in Asia. An essential feature of the ARFP is that it will increase the demand for funds to be domiciled in Asia. This would offer increased job opportunities, not only to manage the funds but also to service the fund structure.

What does it mean for the asset management industry in Korea?

Korea has a mature funds management industry. The first contractual-type equity investment scheme was introduced in 1970, after the promulgation of the Securities Investment Trust Business Act in 1969. The development of the funds industry experienced a setback during the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98. However, it has since quickly recovered.

Assets under management ― the sum of fund assets and assets under discretionary management ― by the 86 asset management companies totaled 685 trillion won ($616 billion) at the end of 2014, up 9.1 percent or 57 trillion won from 628 trillion won a year earlier. Fund assets increased 14 percent to 382 trillion won. Publicly offered funds increased 7.4 percent to 204 trillion won, while private equity funds increased 22.8 percent to 178 trillion won. Discretionary assets increased 3.4 percent to 303 trillion won during the same period.

The aggregate net income of the asset management companies for 2014 came to 424.8 billion won, up 14.1 percent from 372.4 billion won during the last year. A total of 20 companies reported net losses for the period.

However, despite its success, the funds industry is fragmented and markedly skewed toward equity that dominates the total funds’ AUM.

While regulators in Korea have been keen to pursue market liberalization, the industry still faces challenges. For instance, industry analysts have noted that the sale of offshore funds is facing tight regulatory hurdles, including preferential tax treatment for onshore versus offshore funds. As a result, the presence of foreign funds in Korea has been relatively weak.

The ARFP is a therefore a very good initiative to give a boost to the industry in Korea.

However, the Financial Supervisory Service should also keep in mind the risks that are involved with the creation of the ARFP.

As in any cross-border financing solution, shocks in one market can be amplified and transmitted to other markets very quickly. This can become worse given the enhanced interconnectedness and efficiencies of the transmission and intermediation process currently available.

While the deepening integration of financial markets will help promote the financing of investment, care should be taken to see that they do not accentuate the risks associated with large and volatile capital flows.

The FSS should ensure that Korea’s regulations and market practices are upgraded and harmonized in tune with regional standards. It should also keep investor protection foremost in mind, minimizing systemic vulnerabilities and maximizing market transparency before finalizing the plans to rollout the ARFP.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Stock price limits and circuit breakers

First Published in The Korea Herald.

Starting next month, the Korea Exchange will expand price limits and introduce market-wide circuit breakers that should provide some relief for stock traders and retail investors.

Price limits and circuit breakers are used by many stock exchanges and regulators to counter severe price movements in financial markets, and Korea is no exception. Price limits are maximum percentages or values that a security or derivative contract can rise or fall in a trading day. Circuit breakers are trading halts triggered by sharp price movements, and can be imposed on either an individual financial instrument or the market as a whole. They were first adopted by the New York Stock Exchange and other U.S. exchanges in 1988.

Circuit breakers had been recommended by the U.S. Presidential Task Force in the aftermath of the stock market crash on Oct. 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 508 points, or 22.7 percent. These circuit breakers were not triggered until a decade later, on Oct. 27, 1997.

Korea’s bourse operator has announced that, starting June, the price limit is set to rise to 30 percent, while the circuit breaker would halt trading for 20 minutes if the benchmark index falls 8 percent and 15 percent and shut down the daily session if the index plunges more than 20 percent.

Currently, stocks listed on the main KOSPI and tech-heavy KOSDAQ markets are allowed to move within a 15 percent price range from the previous session’s closing price. It is the first time in 17 years that the daily price cap is being revised. The existing circuit breaker allows the bourse operator to suspend trading for 20 minutes once a day if the market cap falls by 10 percent and is not triggered after 2:20 p.m.

“Although the current price limit system has contributed to stabilizing the stock market, it has hampered effective price setting by preventing the latest information from being immediately reflected in share prices,” officials of KRX were quoted as saying by the media.

It is hoped that the expanded price range will help the market better set the appropriate price in accordance with corporate values, he noted.

There is no doubt that a fair and orderly trading environment is key to maintaining a vibrant and well-functioning securities market.

Market interventions are aimed at preventing potential market disorder and restoring order in a trading environment that may be under stress. By providing a break or limit in trading, interventions are intended to provide the opportunity for information to be disseminated widely and equally, for market participants to reconsider their trading decisions rationally in light of new information and to serve as a signal of potential order imbalances in the system.

However, there is no consensus on whether price limits and circuit breakers are effective tools during crises. To date, there is still no convincing evidence of their potency.

Let us take a brief look at the two different schools of thought on the validity of these market invention systems.

As noted earlier, supporters say the systems provide investors with a cooling-off period to calm fears or provide time to digest news when there are steep declines in the markets; reduce market volatility and protect investors from excessive market volatility; provide time to restore the equilibrium between buyers and sellers; and provide the opportunity for increased information flow.

Those against market intervention, however, argue that they prevent investors from engaging in equity transactions that reflect their assessments of economic events, trapping investors in their positions. They find the tools counterproductive as they drain liquidity and diminish market depth.

The tools accelerate price movements toward the pre-announced limits as market participants alter their strategies and trade in anticipation of a market halt. In addition, they induce panic and uncertainty if the markets shut down suddenly and scare away the buying power necessary to turn a selling panic around.

The other arguments are that they are unfair to market participants with positions that benefit from volatility and deprive market participants of opportunities to raise liquidity to meet other obligations and lead to a chain of defaults.

In essence, price limits and circuit breakers deprive market participants of the opportunities to transfer risk and interrupt the price discovery process, two key market functions.

Economists have pointed out that one way to tackle this is to have the right of a discretionary halt built into the regulatory system, but use it rarely or sparingly as a deterrent. Such a deterrent would be just that ― a deterrent.

This is because, without a breaker, the price is continuously available as a barometer for investor beliefs. However, with a breaker in place, the price simply ceases to be displayed. This causes uncertainty among market participants as to what the asset is truly worth. The execution price uncertainty can also lead to misallocation of resources and the bearing of unwanted and avoidable risk.

Another alternative to such halts are “sidecars,” which have been used in the U.S. exchanges. Market orders are batched over short intervals and then matched against limit-order books, and move from a continuous auction to batch orders during extreme market moves, which would potentially slow trading down and calm markets. These procedures do not cause total cessation of trade and price discovery.

In any case, the market intervention mechanisms have been in used in many advanced countries, and one does not expect the Korean regulators to ditch the automatic system to shield the market from volatility.

It is good to know that the KRX will adopt a wider range of measures to prevent excessive market fluctuation and step up market monitoring in the first month to detect any suspicious trading activities. It is also preparing changes in the electronic trading system in cooperation with brokerage houses to introduce new functions to curb excessive stock fluctuations.

Given that, since the rules are being eased, it is absolutely necessary that the bourse operator strictly monitors trading, not just for one month, but continuously. The regulator cannot afford to let its guard down.

The stock market is an important barometer of the aggregate economy. A growing stock market signals to policymakers that sentiment is positive and investors expect economic conditions to improve. Appropriate policy action can then be taken. In a similar vein, a falling stock market signals that market participants expect bleak economic conditions. Policymakers may then take action to stimulate growth and perhaps contain inflation.

Therefore, it is very important for the stock market to function efficiently without any hiccups and the regulator should make all efforts to ensure it.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Inadequate steps to boost foreign investment in Korea

First published in The Korea Herald.

Last week, the Korean government announced plans to attract more foreign direct investment by more than 50 percent in three years by easing regulations and focusing support on five sectors, including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said in a statement that industrial materials, petroleum products and food processing sectors would also be given strong support through regulatory changes.

Korea received FDI pledges totaling $19 billion last year, up sharply from $14.5 billion in 2013, and now aims to increase the amount to $30 billion in 2017.

Despite the sharp rise in pledges last year, South Korea still ranks low among high-income countries in the accumulated amount of FDI compared to the size of its economy.

Moreover, according to Industry Ministry data released on April 29, the total amount of reported FDI dropped 29.8 percent in the first quarter of this year to $3.55 billion compared to last year. On an arrival basis, the amount fell by 16.4 percent to $3.15 billion.

According to the UNCTAD 2014 World Investment Report, South Korea ranks No. 7 among the most attractive countries of South and East Asia for transnational companies.

South Korea’s appeal in terms of FDI is the result of the country’s fast economic development and the specialization of its industries in new information and communication technologies. However, the lack of general transparency in regulations continues to be a major concern for foreign investors. Despite the best intentions of the government, foreign investors remain dissatisfied with the ground situation and feel that there is room for improvement if Korea is to raise its competitiveness.

Therefore, it is interesting to see how foreign investment policies have changed over the years.

Policy developments

Korea’s liberalization of foreign direct investment policies was implemented in four stages. Between 1962 and 1979, foreign investment was made mainly through international commercial loans and loans from international foreign institutions like the World Bank, rather than through foreign direct investment, because there were concerns that foreign investors might take control of domestic industries. As a result, both these types of foreign loans constituted more than 80 percent of the total foreign capital in Korea.

The introduction of foreign capital reached its limit in the 1980s due to the second oil crisis and the declaration of a moratorium by developing countries. With this in mind, Korea began to lay the foundations of an FDI policy, by eliminating the 50 percent ceiling on foreign ownership of businesses in various sectors.

Since establishing the “Five-Year Plan for FDI Liberalization” in June 1993, the Korean government has revised and complemented the plan in a continued effort to further open its markets to foreign investors. With the launch of the WTO system in 1995 and South Korea’s entry into the OECD in 1996, the country responded to the changing circumstances of the global economy, while enhancing the competitiveness of domestic industries and expediting the opening of its markets.

Policies for facilitating FDI have been promoted, with foreign ownership of existing stocks permitted in April 1995 and “friendly” M&As in February 1997. In 1997, the Asian financial crisis affected Korea badly. Against this backdrop, the Korean government quickly responded to solve the structural problems of the Korean economy, which were seen as causing the crisis.

Recognizing that attracting FDI was a shortcut to overcoming the economic difficulties, the government actively promoted policies to encourage foreign investment, while drastically liberalizing FDI and portfolio investment. In May 1998, ceilings on foreign ownership of the companies which were listed on the stock market or registered on the KOSDAQ were lifted, and hostile foreign M&As with domestic companies were completely liberalized, thereby allowing foreigners the right to freely own stakes in Korean businesses.

In June, foreign land ownership was totally guaranteed, and all types of business categories, except two, were opened to foreign investment. As a result, the liberalization rate reached 99.8 percent as of December 2001.

These government policies designed to liberalize foreign investment led to the securing of foreign currency and contributed to strengthening the foundation of the national economy by helping Korea to create jobs and overcome the financial crisis sooner than expected. Since then, there have been a series of reforms and the economy has become liberalized.

The government even formulated ambitious plans to make the country a Northeast Asian business hub.

In 2002, the Korean government announced a new “business hub strategy” that differed significantly from the traditional strategy in two ways: First, the essence of the hub strategy was to also harness the business opportunities of the neighboring countries; at the same time, it aimed to produce high value-added goods and services by bringing world-class multinational corporations, foreign capital and technology, as well as specialized professionals, into Korea.

It was expected that by developing as the “business hub of Northeast Asia,” the Korean economy would prosper in the context of a world economy characterized by deepening globalization and rising regionalism.

The government’s view was that to be a regional business hub, Korea must become a logistics hub, a hub of multinational corporations and a financial hub in the region, by using its geoeconomic advantage and creating a business-friendly environment.

Following President Kim Dae-jung’s announcement of a basic policy direction to make Korea a Northeast Asian business hub in January 2002, the Korean government’s action plan for that aim was agreed on in the following July.

A “Draft Law on Designation and Administration of Special Economic Zones,” a key legislation of the business hub plan, was submitted to the National Assembly in October 2002.

The plan was not just a vision. The Korean government backed it up by announcing a concrete action plan, then submitting a draft law for special economic zones.

This new vision, radically improving the market environment, was listed as one of President Roh Moo-hyun’s 10 national agenda. In particular, he established a task force to develop and implement the new vision, specializing in the three main sectors ― logistics, finance and industry. The logistics dimension was considered crucial given Korea’s strategic location between Japan and China.

The administration also took steps improve the business and operating environment for multinational corporations through socioeconomic and institutional reforms such as labor market conditions, chaebol, liberalization of immigration policy and tax benefits at the national level.

In other words, the attraction of multinationals became a top priority for the Korean economy and the major component of Korea’s new globalization strategy. Since then, many policies have been implemented to encourage foreign investors.

President Lee Myung-bak’s administration continued this policy of attracting foreign investors and frequently announced that Korea strove to be the business hub of Northeast Asia.

In effect, it is now 13 years since the strategy was first announced and many enabling policies have been introduced.

Today, the Korean government offers various incentives to foreign-invested companies that have great potential to contribute to the Korean economy. These include tax support, cash grants and site location support.

Korea provides various types of support for foreign investments in industrial complexes, which are designated and developed strategically for industrial development. Likewise, foreign investment zones, free trade zones, and free economic zones in Korea offer favorable investment environments to foreign investors.

Foreign investment zones are designated to attract foreign investment. The zones are largely divided into two types: complex and individual. Complex-type foreign investment areas are sections of national or local industrial complexes that have been designated for small- and medium-sized foreign-invested companies, while an individual-type zone is designated as the individual location of a foreign-invested company.

Despite the best intentions of the government, foreign investors feel that more changes are required if Korea is to compete with emerging economies like China and India.

So then, what is the reality on the ground?

Competitiveness ranking

As we have seen, recent reports on competitiveness continue to note that Korea still has some way to go.

Korea dropped in global competitiveness in 2014 for the second year running to 26th out of 144 economies in the annual report by the World Economic Forum. Korea ranks especially poorly in indicators for institutions, which gauges the severity of regulations, at 82nd, labor market efficiency at 86th, and financial market development at 80th.

Korea “loses further ground in two of the three areas in which historically it has performed poorly. It now ranks 82nd (down eight places) in the institutions pillar and 86th (also down eight) in the labor market efficiency category. Although stable, the financial market development pillar remains a sore point (80th, up one), preventing Korea from closing the competitiveness gap with the three other Asian Tigers,” the report said.

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. Periodically announcing that steps are being taken to lure foreign investors is not enough.

Attracting foreign investors 

There is no doubt that the Korean government’s attitude toward foreign direct investment is positive, and senior policymakers clearly realize the value of FDI. However, many international surveys by private-sector organizations have repeatedly shown that foreign investors are put off by the country’s complicated and overlapping regulations in areas such as foreign exchange transactions and the employment of foreign nationals.

A majority of foreign investors feel that the main problems in the country are a lack of openness and transparency of laws and regulations, a rigid labor market and unstable labor relations and less internationalized human resources than Hong Kong and Singapore.

Most importantly, a majority feel that English proficiency is one of major stumbling blocks for Korea to become a business hub.

As the surveys point out, despite the various liberalization and promotion efforts by the Korean government, internal barriers, namely, domestic regulations and transparency problems, remain.

They feel that Korea lacks a real long-term development project for the future of its economy. The Northeast Asia Hub project, which appears to be Korea’s only strategic response to counter the rise of China, is an “ad-hoc” initiative. The danger is that the country is destined to gain a role as a logistics “niche” by taking advantage of Korea’s geographical position between China, Japan and the Russian Far East, but miss out on greater and wider economic opportunities.

The piecemeal opening of several localized FEZs within Korea is far from sufficient to make FDI here an alternative option to FDI in China. China itself has FEZs in so many cities with attractive conditions supported by its very strong economic growth and the usual low costs.

The only real long-term option for Korea would be to turn the entire country into a free trade zone: This move would transform Korea into the “Free Trade Hub” of Northeast Asia by taking advantage of its value-added high-tech sectors and first-class infrastructure and creating a very competitive services platform for the surrounding countries following the examples of Singapore and Dubai. This is a proposal that China can never offer because it is too large to consider such an economic model.

Investors also find that flexible service support from governments and bureaucrats is a lot less satisfying compared to those from other governments in the region. The implementation of FDI by other governments has a high level of flexibility in helping foreign companies to establish their businesses. Their FDI promotion program and marketing implementations are also very active and supportive to those investors. On the contrary, many investors doubt that the cooperative actions undertaken by government ministries, agencies and provincial governments in Korea are productive or efficient.

Basically, there are too many administrative procedures and documents that take too long. Investors can get only superficial support from the government. The role of each ministry and provincial government should be clearly specified so that conflicts of interest do not arise between the central government and provincial governments.

In the worst case, the conflict between each bureau and the provincial government may cause a negative image of Korea among investors because the credibility of the market will deteriorate. Investors also wish the government and agencies would work more efficiently with improved communication skills and a clearer vision.

One common complaint by most investors is the lack of consistency and reliability of regulation. They feel that Korea’s regulatory framework is still heavily mired in red tape and a lack of coordination between administrations. This problem is worsened by the administration’s poor external communication of laws and regulations as well as by the scarcity and lack of precision in English translations of official documents.

Greater attention should be paid to streamline all administrations toward more transparency and a more “user-friendly” service with all rules and regulations in all industries and sectors duly translated into English and easily available.

The list of regulations ranges from daily audit reports to highly complex certification, testing and bidding procedures. The interpretation of regulations is an even bigger issue since it leaves room for bureaucrats to maintain their old habits of meddling in the economy ― with a particular eye on foreign companies. One favorite tool to go after foreign companies is a tax or regulatory audit.

Further, no matter how comprehensive or good a country’s laws may be, they will only have limited effectiveness if law-enforcement agencies cannot or will not enforce them fairly and consistently. When laws lose their efficacy, they are no longer respected as rules of behavior. The complaints reflect a perceived lack of consistency in the enforcement of the law, which itself is a factor that contributes to corruption.

Foreign businesses are sensitive to the level of corruption since it is a source of business risk. If laws are enforced based on the whims of law-enforcement agencies, they can hardly be expected to retain their efficacy or be respected by society. Excessive government regulation is also a major source of corruption. Unnecessary regulation is the product of bureaucratic formalism commonly found in underdeveloped administrative systems. There are so many complicated regulations in Korea administered at the discretion of inconsistent officials that most people find it impossible to observe all the rules. In addition, officials apply regulations on a selective basis, arbitrarily enforcing them at times and against specific targets.

The government needs to make a more liberal and fair business environment for multinational companies to invest. It should deregulate many inefficient obstacles and operate long-term economic policies with consistency. It should also deal sternly with corruption.

The efficiency of Korean ports and airport facilities also lags behind that of other comparable Asian cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong. The investors are worried that despite the high quality of Korea’s port infrastructure, the competitiveness of these ports is being challenged by stiff regulations and unsatisfactory cargo handling and transportation procedures. At Incheon airport, the advantage of excellent cargo handling skills is offset by sudden and steep price increases that eliminate its competitive edge.

Particular attention should be paid to improve the predictability of new regulations and limit price changes as much as possible so that companies can react accordingly and are given enough time to incorporate those changes into their business plans.

Most investors feel that despite its importance as an import and export country, Korea’s logistics sector still lags behind international standards. Logistics costs in Korea are among the highest in the world, and investors deem it important to improve this situation for the development of foreign business in this country.

Improvements in local infrastructure and regulations are necessary to position Korea as a strategic logistics hub.

Intellectual property rights issues also continue to be a major barrier to attracting foreign direct investment in Korea. The issue is a very serious one and Korea’s bad image in this respect repels foreign investors willing to bring advanced technologies and processes to this market for fear of losing billions of dollars to piracy, counterfeiting and fraud.

The Korean government has devoted much effort in recent years to improving the situation, especially by improving the related legal framework in the FTAs it has signed. In addition, the Korean government has improved its enforcement organization, but production, marketing, importing and exporting of counterfeit and pirate goods are still not deterred effectively in the ordinary marketplace because enforcement actions by the Korean authorities lack continuous efforts.

Korea can easily secure a competitive edge just by seriously enforcing its existing IPR regulations. The strict observance of those IPR regulations, if achieved, will have a very positive impact on the country’s overall image with foreign investors.

Aside from that, the cost of production is much higher. The recent increase of domestic labor costs will cause serious problems for competitiveness in productivity. Eventually, manufacturing facilities will move overseas.

What is more, many existing foreign investors feel that Korea is not successful in promoting its image abroad for foreign investors, mainly due to the lack of coordinated government efforts for the promotion of FDI and the less-than-satisfactory performance of Korean investment promotion organizations abroad.

The latest move by the Park administration, while a step in the right direction, also needs to take into account all these factors that hinder foreign investors.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Korean workers’ tax burden not as bad as it seems

First published in The Korea Herald.

Going by the recent debates on tax hikes in Korea and President Park Geun-hye’s firm resolve not to place “an additional burden on the public,” it would appear that the Koreans are being taxed heavily.

Although it is true that economic growth is stagnant, and employment rates are not too rosy, a new report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has just shattered the myth that the tax burden in Korea is unusually high. 

The OECD report, Taxing Wages 2015, released on April 14, says the tax burden has increased in 23 member countries and fallen in 10 over the past five years. And guess which group Korea falls into?

That’s right, from 2010 to 2014, the tax burden in Korea has declined, even as the middle class in most other developed countries are feeling the heat.

The annual report provides unique information on the taxes paid on wages in OECD countries. It covers personal income taxes and social security contributions paid by employees; social security contributions and payroll taxes paid by employers and cash benefits paid by in-work families. 

The results enable quantitative cross-country comparisons of labor cost levels and the overall tax and benefit position of single people and families on different levels of income.

The tax and social security contribution burden is measured by the “tax wedge” ― or the percentage of employers’ labor costs taken up by taxes, minus family benefits.

Because labor is an important economic input, higher employment rates will lead to higher GDP, other things being equal. 

Yet employment has declined markedly in Korea over the past few years. These poor employment outcomes are often blamed on high taxes on labor, since taxes discourage both demand and supply, by raising labor costs for employers and lowering workers’ effective wages.

This creates a “tax wedge” between labor costs to the employer and the worker’s take-home pay.

The tax wedge, measured as a percentage of taxes and transfers paid in the share of total labor costs, is therefore a measure of the overall level of workers’ taxation.

Now let us see what the analysis of Korea states.

According to the report, Korea has the fifth-lowest tax wedge among the 34 OECD member countries. The average single worker in Korea faced a tax wedge of 21.5 percent in 2014, compared with the OECD average of 36 percent.

In Korea, employee and employer social security contributions combine to account for 79 percent of the total tax wedge, compared with 63 percent of the total OECD average tax wedge.

The tax wedge for a worker with children may be lower than for a worker on the same income without children, since many OECD countries provide benefits to families with children through cash transfers and preferential tax provisions. Korea has the eighth-lowest tax wedge in the OECD for an average married worker with two children, at 19 percent, which compares with the OECD average of 26.9 percent.

Child-related benefits and tax provisions tend to reduce the tax wedge for workers with children compared with the average single worker. In Korea in 2014, this reduction ― 2.5 percentage points ― was less than for the OECD average of 9.1 percentage points.

Looking at the trend over a long period, the OECD report states that since 2009, the tax wedge for the average single worker increased by 2 percentage points in Korea. During this same period, the tax wedge for the average single worker across the OECD increased by 0.9 percentage points. In other words, while it is true that single workers without children in Korea have felt the pain of taxes most, it is not as bad as it is made out to be.

The employee net tax burden is a measure of the net tax burden on labor income borne directly by the employee. Korea had the third-lowest employee net tax burden for an average single worker at 13.4 percent in 2014, compared with the OECD average of 25.5 percent. That is, in Korea the take-home pay of an average single worker, after tax and benefits, was 86.6 percent of their gross wage.

Taking into account child-related benefits and tax provisions, the employee net tax burden for an average married worker with two children in Korea was reduced to 10.7 percent in 2014, compared with 14.8 percent for the OECD average. Which means that an average married worker with two children in Korea had a take-home pay, after tax and family benefits, of 89.3 percent of their gross wage, compared to 85.2 percent for the OECD average.

The key takeaways from this analysis is that the tax system in Korea is becoming more progressive for low-income households, especially households with children. This is obvious from the fact that the tax wedge for families with children is lower than that for single individuals without children.

Also, an increase in the tax wedge leads to an increase in companies’ labor costs. However, in Korea, there has been a decline. So clearly the corporate sector, which has been tight-fisted in raising salaries or hiring needs a rethink. It is therefore a good thing that the government is imposing additional taxes on companies who do not make use of their cash reserves.

Lastly, there is no reason why the government should be so adamant about not raising taxes. Policymakers should look beyond short-term election outcomes and concentrate on the longer-term impact of raising taxes for certain people.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Labor reforms face hurdles in Korea

First published in The Korea Herald.

The presidential office last week urged representatives of labor, management and the government to compromise on contentious reform measures aimed at providing greater flexibility in the labor market, a day after they failed to narrow their differences within the deadline.

The Economic and Social Development Commission ― a consultative body comprising representatives of labor, management and the government ― had set March 31 as the deadline for concluding months of talks on overhauling Korea’s labor market.

The discussions focused on the issue of the labor market’s dual structure ― the huge gap between full-time regular employees and nonregular workers ― pending topics like wages, working hours and retirement, the issue of partnership among tripartite partners, and other policy and institutional improvements.

In particular, in light of the importance and urgency of the pending issues such as the reduction of working hours and ordinary wages ― whether to include regularly-paid bonuses in ordinary wage calculations ― they agreed to come up with “principles and direction for a solution of the pending issues and labor market structure improvement.” Details are expected to be arranged in the first half of the year.

The trilateral meetings reportedly reached some agreement, especially on ordinary wages, plans to reduce working hours and an extension of the retirement age. However, labor unions strongly resisted a government proposal to grant employers more discretion in firing underperforming regular workers. News reports also suggested that management opposed the labor groups’ suggestion to force them to give nonregular workers regular status if their work is similar to that of regular workers.

The presidential office took the unusual step of reminding the panel to find common ground, stressing “it is necessary for the nation’s economic growth and future generations.”

The overhaul of the labor market is one of the reform measures President Park Gyeun-hye is pushing as part of her three-year economic revitalization plan. She has argued that labor reform is key to job creation.

To increase labor market flexibility, the government and management have urged labor groups to accept the idea of lifting some labor regulations for employers so they can replace underperforming workers. But labor groups oppose the idea, saying it would eventually allow businesses to seek massive lay-offs and pressure poorly performing workers to accept salary reductions.

The idea is intended to force regular workers out and replace them with nonregular workers, which would lower the overall quality of jobs, they claim.

Given the continued mistrust between the concerned parties, it is unlikely that they will reach an agreement anytime soon. Unions have even threatened a general strike if the government and management push for reforms without consent from workers.

Therefore it may be prudent to take a look at Korea’s labor market from a historical perspective, before we analyze what, exactly, are some of the current problems.

Seeing eye-to-eye

Since the 1960s, Korea has achieved remarkable economic growth, mainly due to cheap labor and diligent and skilled workers. Labor policies during this period were intended to guarantee the basic livelihood of workers and provide sufficient workers for industrial development. But it was not until the mid-1970s that the government recognized the importance of labor issues.

Until then, industrial relations were not viewed as a major social and economic issue, but in the following years, when the country’s labor market saturated, the problem of working conditions replaced that of job creation as the central social and economic focus. Many fierce labor disputes erupted, which resulted in severe government crackdowns.

In the early 1980s, workers’ awareness of their rights became widespread, especially with regard to claiming their fair share of the fruits of the economic growth achieved in the past two decades. However, the government cracked down on the labor movement. As a result, in spite of the marked increase in the number of workers from 1980 to 1987 and the growing awareness of their rights, the number of unionized workers remained at around 1 million.

With rapid democratization in 1987, Korea underwent significant changes in its labor movement. A number of new labor unions were formed, and many businesses saw a dramatic increase in disputes.

The shortage of manual workers in the construction and manufacturing sectors became acute as workers became less willing to take on difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs.

Labor was no longer cheap, as wages rapidly increased. These changes forced the nation to transform from a labor-intensive economy a more technology-based one.

The labor policy underwent dramatic changes through the reduction of government intervention based on the principle of labor-management autonomy and the revision of labor-related laws to meet international standards.

The government also made efforts to actively promote the interests of workers with the institutionalization of the minimum wage system, the reduction of working hours and the abolition of legal restrictions on strikes.

Trade unions called for the introduction of new labor laws in the early 1990s to ensure that job seekers received appropriate vocational training to meet the demand for new skills generated by structural changes in companies. When the nation was hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the urgent need to reform both the social and economic sectors was recognized.

While making continuous efforts to reach a consensus on major labor issues, the government revised labor laws to meet international standards in 1997 with the founding of the Labor-Management Relations Reform Committee, thereby achieving remarkable improvements in the area of basic labor rights. However, it had its own side effects.

The Tripartite Commission was formed as the need to draw a national consensus for the sake of overcoming the economic crisis became clear after Korea had to introduce reforms after being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. A historic consensus was reached among labor, management and the government over structural reforms and burden-sharing in February 1998. On the basis of this consensus, many businesses could implement corporate restructuring measures, including employment adjustments and pay freezes.

Since 2000, there have been both legislative reforms such as shortening working hours, enacting the Law on Nonregular Works, and structural reforms such as the spread of industry-level unions and the expansion of labor’s political activities.

Thanks to such efforts, the economy rebounded quickly. Industrial relations, however, worsened as expectations ran high and more structural reforms got underway. The number of factors that contributed to labor-management conflicts, such as lay-offs, a decrease in new hiring, a larger number of nonregular workers, a widening gap between labor and management positions on wage hikes, compensation and provisional seizure claims against strikers etc., has been on the rise, in line with worsening economic conditions.

Experts have pointed out that despite this, when comparing Korea’s labor standards and regulations to those of advanced economies, it is important to keep in mind that the core labor standards have developed through an evolutionary process over more than a century, and it has been less than 30 years since the democratic movement in 1987 began to free Korea from its long past of oppression and autocratic control. It can be safely said that Korea’s labor movement is still in a transitional period, in which the labor structure is slowly converging with global labor culture and practices.

Trade unions

Trade unions in Korea are broadly divided into three organizational types: enterprise-level trade unions, federations of trade unions and nationwide federations of trade unions. There are 42 federations of enterprise-level unions and two nationwide federations.

The Federation of Korean Trade Unions was formed in 1961 after a military coup, and the dissolution of the General Federation of Korean Trade Unions and its affiliates. It was placed under the guidance of the military authorities and was the sole legal trade union center in Korea until the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was recognized in November 1999. Of the two, the KCTU is generally considered to be more militant.

As of the end of 2013 ― the latest available government estimates ― the number of unionized workers in Korea was 1.848 million, up 66,000 from the previous year. The unionization rate was 10.3 percent, meaning that 1 in 10 Korean workers is a member of a trade union.

According to a report on trade unions published by the Ministry of Employment and Labor, Korea’s unionization rate fell from 19.8 percent in 1989, and declined to single digits (9.8 percent) for the first time in 2010. In 2011, the figure bounced back to 10.1 percent, due to the law allowing multiple unions to operate within one company, and has stayed around 10.3 percent for the past few years.

Segmenting the number of unionized workers by umbrella organizations shows that the FKTU had the largest membership of 819,755 members (44.4 percent); the KCTU had 626,035 members (20.7 percent); the Korean Labor Unions Confederation had 22,221 members (1.1 percent); and the remaining 381,575 workers (20.7 percent) belonged to independent trade unions.

The number of members climbed by 11,000 (1.4 percent) for the FKTU; by 21,000 (3.5 percent) for the KCTU; by 2,000 (12.9 percent) for the KLUC; and by 32,000 (9 percent) for independent unions.

At end-December 2014, it was announced that the FKTU and the KLUC would merge. They claimed that the decision to reconstitute as a single organization was “to eliminate unnecessary conflict between labor organizations, make themselves more reliable for the public, and play a bigger role in social issues based on a higher unionization rate.”

As a result of the merger, the FKTU will take on 15,000 government workers belonging to the KLUC to reach 960,000 members.

The number of independent unions, meanwhile, went up eightfold, compared with 2003, perhaps due to a new tendency emerging among workers to pursue practical interests, instead of politically-charged labor movements, the report noted.

According to sectorial classification, private sector labor unionization is 9.1 percent, the government employee unionization rate is 63.5 percent, and the educational worker unionization rate is 16.8 percent.

It is important to mention that the ESDC has been seriously disrupted by the KCTU’s struggles against the government and the withdrawal of the FKTU. However, in mid-August 2014, the FKTU returned to the ESDC and the urgent labor issues of ordinary wages, working hour reductions and the retirement age are currently under discussion.

Labor relations

As per the latest available figures, in 2014 there were over 100 labor disputes and 551,305 lost working days. Given the stalemate in the ESDC talks, one can only expect the conflict between labor and management to degenerate this year.

For that matter, according to a recent survey of 306 companies by the Korea Employer’s Federation, 63.1 percent of respondents said “industrial relations will worsen in 2015 than last year.” Being more specific, 11.4 percent of companies responded that “industrial relations will worsen much,” “industrial relations will worsen a little” (51.7 percent), “similar to last year” (33.5 percent), and “more stable” (3.4 percent).

The most common answer from companies was “industrial relations will worsen” due to conflicts surrounding industrial relations regarding ordinary wages, the reduction of working hours, and in-house subcontracts and partner firms (outsourcing).

The major risk factor in industrial relations in 2015 are legal conflicts surrounding pending industrial relations issues, conflicts over the improvement of the wage system, and the improvement of labor related law and systems.

The companies which projected unstable industrial relations in 2015 pointed out legal conflicts surrounding pending industrial relations issues, conflicts over the improvement of the wage system, and the improvement of labor-related law, and systems. In particular, companies viewed the expansion of legal conflicts surrounding pending industrial relations issues as the biggest risk factor since the burden on companies increased due to lawsuits regarding ordinary wages on industrial sites, ruling on additional payments for holiday work, and ruling on the violation of illegal dispatches.

Companies projected that the major issues in the 2015 wage negotiation and collective bargaining would be wage increases, extended scope of ordinary wages, welfare expansion and employment security like prohibiting reconstruction. In particular, it is presumed that many companies would carry out only wage negotiations and trade unions would focus on demanding wage hikes and welfare expansion that are the major interests of union members.

Moreover, the government announced its Comprehensive Measures for Nonregular Workers in 2014, stating its intention to work on structural reform of the labor market ― enhancing flexibility within the labor market and reforming wage systems.

Furthermore, discussions on changes to labor law and regulations will not be easy since labor is strongly opposed to the government’s policies in this area. Conflict between the government and labor may well intensify as the government plans structural adjustments to public institutions and public pensions. Under these circumstances, collective bargaining this year is likely to be difficult.

Issues on hand

On Dec. 29, the government submitted comprehensive plans for nonregular workers to the ESDC aimed at eliminating the abuse of and discrimination against nonregular workers, and narrowing the gap in terms of working conditions between regular and nonregular workers.

To achieve these goals, the plans focus on reducing the differences between workers of different status, enhancing job security, and improving regulations for the labor market.

As of end-2014, the number of nonregular workers was about 32.4 percent of the total paid workforce, a 53.5 percent of female workers. The percentage of nonregular workers among workers aged 60 or older was 68.7 percent.

The government has proposed a measure to amend the fixed-term work act and the temporary agency work act so that employees of either status aged 35 years or older can, if they want, work for the same company for up to four years, as opposed to the current two. Also, it would become much easier for workers to be eligible for severance pay. It wants to make employees eligible to receive severance pay if they work for a company for three months or longer, as opposed to the current one year or longer, so 1.95 million workers are expected to benefit from this relaxation in requirements.

In addition, the government recommended that employees should be able to receive a transition benefit worth 10 percent of their wage for the two-year period of extended service, along with severance pay if they fail to become regular workers after the extension.

So far, temporary agency work has been permitted in 32 business categories, and such work is now allowed for those aged 55 years or older, and for highly paid professionals as well.

The Labor Ministry said it would take measures to rationalize the regulations on temporary agency work following discussions with the ESDC. The ministry will also allow six special types of worker to be covered by work injury and employment insurance.

The requirements for layoffs will become more specific, making it easier for businesses to dismiss underperforming regular workers, and the layoff process will become more demanding, requiring companies to hire people for positions that were lost due to financial difficulties.

The government will formulate “Layoff Guidelines,” which will specify what efforts companies should make before dismissing underperformers, such as assigning them to different positions.

Currently, nonregular workers have to appeal to the Labor Relations Commission as individuals if they believe they have been discriminated against in terms of wages or welfare benefits, but they will be able to use a trade union to appeal on their behalf. Businesses will be prohibited from the practice of paying only 90 percent of the full salary for menial workers, such as convenience store clerks or gas station workers, for a training period, which is usually three months.

Also, for those whose performance is closely linked to human safety, such as captains or chief engineers on cruisers, train engineers, airport controllers and airplane pilots, nonregular work will not be allowed as a matter of principle.

However, both business and labor communities have expressed their concerns about the “side effects” of the government plans.

The corporate sector has argued that “The government plans will expand the scope of nonregular workers too much, and have focused on strengthening regulations relating to the use of nonregular workers, ignoring the real situations of employers and of the labor market. The plans will put significant burdens on business operations.”

In an official statement, the KEF noted that the reforms “disregarded the circumstances of corporates that are the main agents for job creation and the reality of the labor market. It is deeply concerning that these opinions are written in a way that it mainly represents the labor stance on important issues that possibly influence decisions on directions for the Korean labor market.”

The barriers to labor market entry should be lowered in order to create jobs and improve the dual structure of the labor market, it said. However, the current policy will “strengthen the vested rights of workers who are already in the labor market.”

Major causes for polarization of the labor market are the overprotection of regular employment and the excessive hike of wages based on a seniority-based wage system. Therefore, it is almost impossible to expect an improvement of vulnerable workers’ labor conditions unless these issues are solved in the first place.

However, these new regulations may shift the burden to companies by disregarding the improvement of reasonable human resource management such as resolving the current overprotection of regular employment and alleviating requirements for changing working conditions.

Also, it is not appropriate to intensify the burden through introducing such systems as living wages and market wage prices at a time when minimum wage stability is urgent, since minimum wages surged rapidly after 2000.

Trade unions point out that “The government is seeking to massively increase the number of nonregular workers by extending how long companies can hire a nonregular worker for a position, by introducing a new status of ‘semiregular worker,’ which falls between regular and nonregular workers, and by allowing temporary agency workers aged 55 years or older in more business categories.”

Kim Dong-man, president of the FKTU, which is negotiating in the trilateral commission, stressed, “The government is pushing ahead with full-scale strategies for labor flexibility without making an effort to reach an agreement among social partners. We have no option but to stop social dialogue if the government continues to do so. The unilateral plan will be faced with strong protest by the FKTU and we are ready to stage a general strike.”

He went on to say, “We are demanding the government drastically change the economic structure and policy directions for the achievement of income-led growth. To this end, we will step up our efforts for the alleviation of discrimination against precarious workers, the eradication of unfair subcontracting practices and the achievement of fair taxation.”

It now remains to be seen whether the government can get labor groups and management on the same page in the near future, so the Park administration can focus on economic revitalization. The next few weeks are surely going to be very dramatic.