Published : 2013-12-13 20:00
Updated : 2013-12-13 20:00
Among the 12 most-leveraged government-owned companies are Korea Land & Housing Corp., Korea Electric Power Corp. and Korea Water Resources Corp., none of which can be held solely accountable for the huge amounts of debt they have taken on over the past five years. On the contrary, it is the previous administration that dumped the new debt obligations onto the corporations.
Korea Land & Housing Corp.’s debt increased by as much as 71 trillion won ($67 billion) during the 2008-12 period. Much of the new borrowing was used to finance the subsidized housing projects the Lee Myung-bak administration launched to endear itself to the electorate.
Korea Electric Power Corp., whose debt increased by 56 trillion won during the same period, sustained a loss of 19 trillion won just from supplying electricity. It did so because the Lee administration did not allow the utilities company to raise the electricity rates enough to cover its costs. The administration continued to push down the rates because it did not want to offend consumers.
An even more shameful political motive was behind the case of Korea Water Resources Corp., which incurred an extra 7 trillion won in debt. President Lee, who committed himself to balancing the national budget by 2013, still wanted to launch his big-ticket project to reclaim the four major rivers of the nation. One way out of the predicament was to force the corporation to shoulder part of the huge cost.
Now corporations under the control of the central government and local governments owe a total of 566 trillion won. Their combined debt is larger than the national debt, which amounts to 443 trillion won.
True, corporate mismanagement is one of the culprits. But no less responsible for the dizzying level of debt has been the administration’s populist policies and fiscal irresponsibility.
But Hyun Oh-seok, deputy prime minister for economic affairs, ignored this point when he told the government-owned corporations to shape up. He said it was not the appropriate time to fight over who should be held accountable for the huge increases in debt.
Instead, he threatened to fire chief executive officers if they fail to reduce debt to the preset levels. He told them to scale down the projects underway, sell assets, reduce perks and take other necessary measures as debt reduction efforts.
But the question is whether or not the incumbent administration is prepared to take politically risky or unpopular actions, such as giving permission to raise the electricity rates, the expressway toll charges and the prices of coal briquettes. Another problem lies with the qualifications of those selected or being tapped for the top posts of government-owned corporations.
It is not unusual for people with little experience in business management to be selected as the chief executive officers of government-owned corporations, simply because they are close to the president or other politically powerful figures. The incumbent administration is little different from its predecessors when it comes to filling vacancies in top management.
Of course, this is not to say that the incumbent administration can afford to stand by idly when the debt of government-owned corporations is snowballing. What it needs to do before anything else is to clear the way for the top managers to take action to reduce debt on their own and hold themselves responsible for the consequences. Otherwise, few will toe the line.