The administration is holding a series of meetings on soaring prices ― ministerial-level policy coordination on Wednesday, policy consultations with the ruling party on Thursday and price checking by vice ministers on Friday. The administration has good reason to hurriedly summon senior economic policymakers to the three consecutive days of talks: It is losing the war it launched to contain intensifying inflation at the outset of this year.
Under its economic management plan, the administration aims to keep consumer prices from rising more than 3 percent this year. The Bank of Korea is more realistic, given its target of 3.5 percent ― 3.7 percent in the first half of this year and 3.3 percent in the second half. But both the administration and the central bank may not be able to attain their goals if the January price changes are any indication.
The consumer price index soared above the horrible 4 percent mark in January, despite the administration’s threat to launch tax audits and price-fixing investigations against business concerns jacking up prices. The inflation outlook for this month is no better. As usual, prices firmed up during the run-up to the lunar New Year holiday last week. But what is disturbing this time is that consumers find post-holiday prices have not dropped as much as in previous years.
The administration was destined to lose the war the moment it declared it. What government in the world would allow itself to be harried by inflation if it could sap inflationary pressure with punitive power alone? Still, the administration recently checked the costs of petroleum products, for instance, threatening to start investigations into allegations of price fixing by refineries. It seemed as if it ignored the fact that a product differs in price from place to place depending on shifts in demand and supply.
To complicate the matter, the ruling Grand National Party is joining the fight against inflation. In consultations with the administration on Thursday, it is planning to demand stronger action against the surging cost of rent in urban areas as well as the soaring prices of goods and services.
That is understandable, given growing public discontent about consumer purchasing power being eroded ahead of April parliamentary by-elections in the short term and the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections in the longer term. Here again, however, the ruling party is well advised to exercise self-restraint on demanding punitive action.
Instead of attempting to tinker with prices of individual goods and services, the administration will do well to review its 2011 economic policy goals of generating 5 percent growth and keeping the consumer price index at 3 percent or lower. If it is judged that the goals cannot be attained simultaneously, it may consider moderating growth in exchange for more stable prices.
Specifically, the administration may choose to allow the Korean currency to strengthen, which will lower import prices. Its downside will be a slowdown in exports, which are the driving force behind growth, because a stronger won will make Korean-made product more expensive overseas.
The won has gained considerably since the end of last year. But it is too early to determine whether or not the administration has made a change in policy in favor of lower prices.
The central bank may choose to help tame the inflationary prices by raising its benchmark rate when it holds the regular monthly session of the Monetary Policy Committee on Friday. Here again, the downside is slower growth. But if the administration is earnest in its desire to stabilize consumer prices, it will have to keep itself from pressuring the central bank to keep the rate low, as it has frequently done in the past ― sometimes behind the scenes and other times in public.