Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why Korea has a Bright Future

by Jeremy Siegel, Ph.D.

My 14-hour Korean Air flight on a non-stop Boeing 747 airliner from New York to Seoul took the polar route over Siberia and China right towards the South Korean capital. But when the plane approached North Korea, it turned sharply east to the Yellow Sea and then hugged the coast before veering west to land at Incheon, the sparkling new airport completed in 2001, a year before Korea hosted the World Cup.

The detour is mandated by North Korea which does not allow South Korean aircraft over their airspace, a restriction that adds nearly an hour to the flight. The north-south division has been a central feature of Korea over the past half century, influencing its politics and economics. But the country is now looking forward, seeking its place in Asia’s future amid the growing economic power of China.

I was invited to Seoul by Mr. Park Hyeon-Joo, Founder and Chairman of the Mirae Asset Group, one of Korea’s fastest growing financial companies. The firm was one of the sponsors of a conference honoring the 20th anniversary of the National Pension Service, Korea’s social security system. Korea, in contrast to the US, invests some of its massive $250 billion trust fund in equities and was considering the advantages of an even higher allocation.

An Asian Economic Success
South Korea is enormously successful. Its per capita income is more than 60% of that of the US, up from only 8% in the early 1960s. Seoul is the second most populated metropolitan area in the world (behind Tokyo), with over 22,000,000 residents. It is a modern Asian metropolis with little sign of poverty.

The country has come a long way from the 1998 Asian crisis that spread from South Asia to Korea. At the height of the crisis, the South Korea’s market index, the KOSPI, fell 74% from 1150 to 277. But lately the market has been surging and in October the index surpassed 2000 and Korean stocks now have a market value over $1 trillion.

Despite the recent bull market, the valuation of Korea’s stock market is still quite compelling. The KOSPI index is selling at only 15.5 times this year’s earnings, a valuation that compares favorably with 19 time earnings in Indonesia, 24 in India, and the 50s for the booming Chinese stock market.

Investors looking to invest in the country can buy the iShares MSCI South Korea Index ETF (EWY), which trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Korean won is also strong, rising from 2000 to the dollar at the height of the crisis to 900 today, about the same rate it was before the Asian turmoil began. In dollar terms, the Korean stock market has increased more than ten-fold over the past decade.

But despite this recovery, the country is at a crossroads. It is aging more rapidly than the US, and its fertility rate of 1.2 rivals Japan as one of the lowest in the world. Geopolitical risks abound as the division between the North and the South hangs over the country.

Koreans constantly debate the pros and cons of an eventual merger with the North. They are acutely aware of the cost that West Germany incurred in the absorption of East Germany. They rightfully argue that if the South absorbed the North, the cost to South Korea would be greater since North Korea is so much poorer than East Germany was when the Berlin Wall fell. Yet many feel that eventually the two countries will be united.

But there are more immediate challenges. Korea’s manufacturing is being squeezed by cheap labor from China and its electronics giant, Samsung, has been floundering of late. Increased competition is everywhere. For example, the Koreans once dominated the computer game market in China, but are now feeling stiff competition from the Chinese themselves.

Blueprint for the Future
Mr. Park, the far-sighted chairman of Mirae Asset Management, believes that Seoul can make its mark in financial services and become the financial center of East Asia. The financial industry is growing and clearly has an important place in Korea’s future. But to insure future growth Seoul would have to reduce regulation and foster an innovative and dynamic image. Today there are far too many restrictions on short selling, hedge funds, and its financial institutions are small by today’s international standards.

Yet Korea has some decided advantages. Its people are highly educated and the country sends more students to the US than any other Asian nation, including China and India. Recent political trends have turned more conservative and economic growth is being giving top priority. The five year rule of Roh Moo-hyun, a populist who promised to redress the inequalities of wealth and break up monopolies, has not been successful. As a result, Lee Myung-bak, the former Hyundai executive and mayor of Seoul, enjoys a strong lead in the polls for the upcoming presidential election.

A pro-business government is important, but Korea must do more. To achieve economic success, Seoul must retain its foreign-educated students and entice others to make their mark in Korea. Mr. Park’s presentation at the conference emphasized the importance of being a magnet for top talent. His slides showed the vibrant and colorful skyline of Pudong area of Shanghai and compared it to the clean, white, but uninteresting skyline of Seoul.

He is right: Seoul, like other Asian capitals, must compete with Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, and others cities to attract the best people. We Americans should also not become complacent, as many rightfully claim that the world’s financial center is moving from New York to London and the Far East. All cities now compete in the global marketplace.

Korea’s greatest resource is its people as it has a highly educated and motivated workforce. The country rose from poverty to become one of the richest nations in Asia in a few short decades. As long as it stays focused on the future, I see no reasons why Korea cannot continue to be a leader in Asia. ◦

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