Warnings about the impact of the euro crisis on Korea’s economy are now coming one after another. But Korean is already being drawn into an economic emergency. The question now is: Are top Korean economic policymakers prepared to tackle this problem head-on as they did during the 2008 financial crisis?
In a July 16 market update of its Global Financial Stability Report, the International Monetary Fund said Asia appears better shielded from the eurozone crisis than other regions ― but not Korea, which generates growth by promoting external trade. Instead, it is most vulnerable to the crisis, as the IMF warned that “rising global uncertainty and weaker external demand are causing headwinds for export-dependent economies such as the Republic of Korea.”
Indeed, Korea’s monthly exports have already become stagnant or declined. According to a report from the Korea Customs Service, the nation’s June exports amounted to $47.2 billion, registering a 1.1 percent rise from a year ago. The negligible increase followed four consecutive declines in monthly shipments.
No wonder growth slowed to 2.7 percent during the first half of this year, well below the 2012 target growth rate, which President Lee Myung-bak’s administration recently lowered from 3.7 percent to 3.3 percent. Despite the first-half slowdown, top economic policymakers say that the revised target is still attainable.
This optimism is based on an unsubstantiated belief that growth will be much faster in the second half. The worsening external conditions do not seem to weigh heavily on the mind of Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan, who says the premise of faster growth in the second half is basically correct although it is yet to be seen when growth will gain momentum.
With the European crisis deepening, Korean shipments to the European Union during the first half dropped 16.1 percent from a year ago. No less worrisome were the prospects for other regions.
Exports to China, the largest market for Korea, also fell, although the decline was arrested at 1.5 percent. But Korea may have to brace for what is yet to come, with growth in China stunted.
Gross domestic product grew 7.6 percent in China during the second quarter of this year. It was the first time since the second quarter of 2009 for China’s growth rate to dip below the 8 percent mark. According to an estimate by the Hyundai Research Institute, a 1 percentage point drop in China’s GDP growth translates into a 1.7 percentage point fall in the growth of Korean exports to China.
Under these circumstances, one investment bank after another is revising downward their 2012 growth outlook for Korea. Last month, JPMorgan lowered it from 3.3 percent to 2.9 percent. Credit Suisse also lowered it, from 3.4 percent to 3 percent.
Even more pessimistic was Bank of America. True, it said Korea’s GDP was most likely to grow 3 percent, given a planned increase in its spending during the second half. But it said growth may slow to a worrisome 1.8 percent if the external conditions worsen further.
Domestic economic conditions are no better. The most troubling among them is household debt, which is nearing the 1,000 trillion won mark. Economic experts are warning that household debt may cause an economic calamity in Korea, similarly as U.S. subprime mortgages triggered a financial crisis in the United States.
Asset deflation is another cause of concern. There is much talk about the Korean economy lapsing into a liquidity trap, as prices of stocks, properties and other assets are falling at a time when the central bank is keeping its base rate low.
Against this gloomy backdrop, President Lee had a brainstorming session on the state of the nation’s economy with the prime minister, the central bank governor, the finance minister and other economic policymakers on Saturday. It was timely and worthwhile for the administration to review policies it had taken in the past, determine which went wrong and consider remedial measures.
The administration now needs to make emergency-management policies, develop action plans for them and start to implement them soon. It has little time to waste, as headwinds are already blowing.