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[Editorial] Allay bank fears

Government has to step up measures to soften shocks from turmoil in global financial market

By Korea Herald

Published : March 17, 2023 - 05:30

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Since Silicon Valley Bank, the 16th-largest bank in the US, went bust on March 10, a series of unnerving developments have hit the global market, touching off concerns that banking woes could spread to the broader economy and other sectors.

The sudden demise of SVB, whose main clients are technology and life-science startups, triggered volatility in stocks, bonds and other assets across the globe. The shock did not die down even though regulators quickly stepped in to allay fears and keep the turmoil from spilling over to other financial companies.

The strong reaction from the market and investors is understandable. After a bank run took down SVB, New York-based Signature Bank faced a similar collapse with its deposits drying up at a rapid pace. This forced US regulators to seize Signature Bank on Sunday.

Despite such responses, fears about the financial system in the US and beyond continued to ripple across the world. It is only natural that experts began to compare what is happening now in the financial market with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008, on the back of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Another wave of panic was set off by the troubles with Credit Suisse, whose shares plunged 24 percent Wednesday after it warned about problems in its accounting practices.

Switzerland’s central bank said it would step in and offer liquidity to the 166-year-old Swiss bank in an attempt to calm investors’ nerves. And yet investors are not convinced that markets would stabilize any time soon, wondering where else risks are lurking.

South Korean authorities have been duly alarmed about the current financial troubles in the US and Europe. After all, the financial markets across the globe are closely interlinked, and Korean investors with access to real-time financial news through their phones are more than willing to withdraw deposits or sell off shares if the panic catches another victim off guard.

Experts say the Korean financial system is not directly exposed to the troubled US banks, but authorities should check potentially vulnerable sectors and companies in connection with external shocks.

The biggest concern for policymakers here is the Korean banks’ project financing based on real estate investment, which amounted to 141 trillion won ($107 billion) in September last year, up from 94 trillion won in late 2019.

The country’s household loans extended by Korean banks edged down last year due to higher borrowing costs, but the total amount was still at a worrisome level at 1,058.1 trillion won, according to the Bank of Korea.

And the Korea Economic Research Institute said last week that if “jeonse,” the long-term housing rental system via lump-sum deposits, is included, the total household debt has increased by more than 700 trillion won from 2017 to 2022.

One estimate shows that among about 850,000 nonbanking companies in Korea, the ratio of the so-called “zombie companies” -- firms struggling to generate enough cash to continue operating and service debt -- is 40.5 percent. Many of the country’s smaller savings banks are also saddled with poor balance sheets and about 30 percent of their loans are exposed to high-risk companies.

The SVB collapse illustrates the unprecedented speed at which a financial system falls into a state of shock and even a bank can go bust more quickly than ever due mainly to the advanced technology and tools that allow for an instant bank run if troubles are reported.

The government’s policymakers are required to speed up actions to revise the outdated protection for bank deposits, which will help allay growing public fears about risks in the financial system. Currently, the individual deposit insurance against a bank run or similar problems is set at 50 million won under the Depositor Protection Act. The limit has been fixed for 23 years since 2001, when authorities raised it from 20 million won to 50 million won.

With related revision bills already floated, the government is expected to come up with a plan to increase the limit as early as August, but it should also step up monitoring of financial firms to fix loopholes and prevent moral hazard.