Monday, December 19, 2016

India’s demonetization and Korea’s currency reform

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi stunned the nation when he made a public announcement at 8 p.m. on Nov. 8 that 86 percent of the currency in circulation -- 500-rupee (US$7.40) and 1,000-rupee notes -- would no longer be legal tender at the stroke of midnight.
The ostensible reason for this was to fight rampant corruption and the underground economy along with counterfeit notes printed by Pakistan to fuel terrorism in India.
He asked the Indian citizens to bear the short-term inconvenience for long-term benefits that would accrue to the economy. While the public has by-and-large supported the move, the anti-Modi cottage industry and opposition politicians have been very critical.
Sure, the public has been inconvenienced because the central bank did not ensure that adequate replacement currency was supplied to commercial banks and the ATM’s were fully stocked across the length and breadth of the country. As a result, there have been long queues of people waiting to exchange their invalid currency and withdraw lower-denomination notes for daily expenses. India’s massive cash-dependent informal sector has been hit hard, and there are even reports of people dying in queues.
However, the public has still not lost patience as Modi has pleaded for time until Dec. 30 for things to get back to normal. The common citizens are willing to give him the benefit of doubt, although his rivals do not.
The jury is still out on whether the move will bring economic benefits to Asia’s third-largest economy or prove to be a huge blunder that could see Modi out of power in 2019, when the parliamentary elections are due next.
That aside, I see in this an opportunity for the Korean authorities to draw lessons from India’s demonetization exercise and see how they can effectively implement the long overdue currency reforms to tackle the underground economy here.
The size of Korea’s underground economy is estimated at 161 trillion won ($143.62 billion) a year. A recent study by Kim Jong-hee, professor of Chonbuk National University, showed that it is equivalent to 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, much higher than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average -- 6.65 percent of G-7 countries as well as 7.66 percent for the other member states.
The amount of tax evasion stood at an annual average of 55 trillion won in the last 20 years, 3.72 percent of the GDP.
“Underground economic activities induce tax dodging, leading to fiscal deficits and tax hikes for key economic actors to make up for the uncollected taxes,” Kim said in the report.
In Korea, it is common for corporates to set up slush funds to bribe politicians, as evident from the frequent raids by prosecutors, which are obviously held in cash of large denomination notes and not in banks. For that reason, there have been many calls to scrap the biggest note, 50,000 won, something that the Bank of Korea is wary of.
In my opinion, Korea should also go in for the bold move of demonetizing the 50,000-won note without notice, so people do not have a chance to convert their illegal currency -- as they will be forced to deposit it in banks and account for it -- and then go in for redenomination of the currency.
This is where the Indian experience will prove handy.
The ground situation in Korea is different and many of the problems India is facing now will not affect the country. Especially since the banking network is more widely used and people are more financially savvy.
For instance, unlike India which is a cash-dependent country, Koreans are increasingly favoring cashless transactions.
According to a central bank survey, Koreans carry on average 1.91 credit cards, 2.03 mobile cards and 1.26 check or debit cards. Four out of 10 picked credit cards as the means of payment they use most, up from three out of 10 the previous year. The ratio of those picking cash, meanwhile, continues to fall.
As Koreans are carrying less cash, with the average standing at 74,000 won last year, down 3,000 won from the previous year, the central bank is also issuing less cash. It released 12.3 percent fewer 10,000-won banknotes last year from the previous year, while the issuance of 5,000 won notes dipped 5.9 percent and 1,000 won bills 3.7 percent.
Statistics from the BOK show that credit cards, at 39.7 percent, make up the largest share of consumer transaction activity while cash accounted for 36 percent in 2015. There is also the increasing popularity of mobile payments, something that is negligible in India.
It would be prudent for the Korean policymakers to watch the Indian experience closely and flush out the problems.
Once the demonetization exercise is successfully completed, it should roll out the redenomination exercise.
Redenomination is the process of lowering the face value of a currency while preserving the same real value. It is simply moving decimal points, so a 1,000-won note will be redenominated as 1 won.
Since South Korea issued banknotes of 1,000 won and 5,000 won in the 1970s, there has been no redenomination to abbreviate the unit of the currency. The 50,000-won bill only made its debut in 2009 in the wake of the rapidly falling value of the 10,000-won bill.
Korea has redenominated twice since the Korean War. In 1953, when the hwan was introduced, with 1 hwan equal to 100 won. In 1962, the won was reinstated, with 1 won equal to 10 hwan.
The BOK claims it has carried out no task on a currency redenomination since 2004 when the government decided to put off discussions on the issue. Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho also recently said that the government has no plans for a redenomination, noting it could cause great confusion.
It is true that a redenomination can cause public inconvenience in the process of adjusting to new bills and a possible hike in consumer prices and spread psychological anxiety among economic players.
Deciding to redenominate during an economic downturn signals that an economy is in very serious trouble and likely to face a currency crisis. It can lower a nation’s international credibility and prompt outflow of foreign capital.
It can also cause prices to become unstable. Redenomination is usually adopted during high inflation and political insecurity (something that Korea is currently facing). Under such circumstances, preference for hard assets rise, pushing up prices for real estate and gold. Such appreciation of hard asset prices can put inflationary pressure.
Moreover, issuing and circulating new coins and paper currency is costly. Financial institutions need to replace their existing payment systems and ATM machines, which requires huge expenditure.
According to some experts, redenomination can drive illegal money into the underground economy because information about personal wealth can be revealed during the process of exchanging old currency with the new one. This is invalid if demonetization takes place.
That is a sure way to tackle the underground economy and boost the currency. It of course requires political will and a strong leader like Modi.