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.