Monday, April 07, 2008

10 Major Trends in Korea for 2008
Samsung Economic Research Institute
Han Chang-Soo

In 2008, under a change in national leadership, Korea is expected to embark on major transitions in almost every sector, from politics to the economy and society. The victory of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) in the December presidential election means a more pro-business administration for the first time in ten years. The overarching economic principle of the new administration will be "growth" rather than "equality and income distribution" as witnessed in recent years.

The administration hopes to maximize the economy's growth potential and job creation by stimulating corporate investment and market competition. However, political resistance to policy changes on top of ongoing social needs and demands will present a challenge in navigating a change in course.

Trend #1: Shifts in Economic Policy Line: Pro-Growth

Stressing pragmatism, President-elect Lee Myung-Bak wants to shift the economic focus back to growth. It is his goal to advance Korea to leading country status by building on the results of industrialization (in the 1970s) and democratization (in the late 1990s), and fortifying growth engines. "It is now time for Korea to become an advanced nation following its establishment (in 1948), industrialization and democratization. ...I am determined to create new development engines based on creativity," said Lee said in his victory speech.

Lee's administration will break away with the equality- and distribution-centered policy line of the last ten years under the liberal governments and try to "realize welfare through growth." Previous administrations attempted to enhance economic efficiency by implementing structural reforms and by introducing global standards over the past decade, but ended up undermining the Korean economy's vitality and native strengths: brisk corporate investment coupled with diligence a challenging spirit, all of which had driven national economic growth. As a result, the average annual economic growth rate fell from 7.7 percent in the 1980s to 6.3 percent in the 1990s and to 4.4 percent between 1997 and 2007.

The new administration plans to implement a market-orientated policy line to achieve its top economic priorities: higher growth and more jobs. Lee's "747 Public Pledge" during his election campaign calls for an annual average of 7.0 percent economic growth, US$40,000 of per-capita income, and Korea becoming one of the world's top seven economies. Along the way, it is envisioned that three million new jobs will be created during his five-year term.

To this end, his administration will choose pragmatic policy designed to invigorate market functions. It is highly likely that it will strive to recognize certain companies as core growth engines and improve corporate investment through deregulation. Prime targets for deregulation are the limits on the shareholdings of large conglomerates in their subsidiary companies, rules governing merger and acquisition (M&A) and the separation between the financial sector and non-financial actors (i.e., the regulation prohibiting an industrial company from owning a commercial bank).

Trend #2: Job Creation through Support for SMEs

Stronger competitiveness through supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and job creation will be the new administration's bywords. It aims to generate 500,000 jobs by fostering 50,000 innovative SMEs over the next five years. According to the government, innovative SMEs are:

* Venture companies

* The so-called "Innobiz" type of company, that is, government-designated SMEs that have operated for over three years, demonstrated technological prowess and growth potential

* SMEs that have proven themselves to be managerially innovative

Their potential of these two latter types of company to hire workers is estimated to be 2.6 times greater than ordinary SMEs.

SME competitiveness was also a key concern of previous administrations since they account for 88.1 percent (as of 2005) of total employment, according to the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business.

The "People's Government" under the Kim Dae-Jung administration focused on nurturing venture companies in order to overcome the 1997 financial crisis, while the outgoing "Participatory Government" under President Roh Moo-Hyun introduced its "Comprehensive Measures [relating to technology, workforce, capital and markets] to Strengthen the Competitiveness of SMEs" in 2004, which contrasted with traditional protective policies toward the sector.

The new administration will promote a more advanced "growth stage-based strategy for fostering SMEs" than that of the Participatory government, which tried to nurture such companies simply by providing financial support. Specifically, the new administration will pursue concrete measures tailored to each type of innovative SME. Venture companies will be fostered with a focus on foundation; Innobiz SMEs will be nurtured in such a way to achieve higher growth; and the progress of managerially innovative SMEs will be bolstered through marketing and organizational innovation.

Trend #3: Prolonged Volatility in Financial Markets

The United States and Korean housing markets will weigh heavily on financial markets. In the U.S., the turmoil triggered by the subprime mortgage debacle will last through 2008 as a record number of homeowners face the end of their low introductory lending-rate period and a reset to a higher rate.

This could create a giant wave of foreclosures and crimp vital consumer spending in the U.S. economy. On a bigger scale, banks, forced into huge write-downs because of toxic securitized mortgages, are limiting commercial lending and non-financial concerns are feeling the effects of the housing industry recession on their own earnings.

The turbulence will raise one of the major questions of 2008: will the slowing U.S. economy fall into a recession and, if so, how will the global economy be affected? Jittery investors have been quick to exit stock markets, fearing a global slowdown. Therefore, the volatility of the U.S. stock market (and consequently the Korean stock market) is expected to continue at least several more months.

For example, following the second round of subprime mortgage woes in August 2007, foreigners sold securities on Korean bourses worth 21.9 trillion won in net terms, i.e., 80.5 percent of the securities that were net sold on an annual average in 2007. If the housing slump in Korea continues with an increasing number of unsold new houses and the recent liquidity squeeze persists, more and more nonperforming loans related to real estate are likely. Project financing (PF) loans offered by saving banks may be a case in point. The proportion of saving banks-issued PF loans jumped from 5.7 percent in June 2006 to 14.0 percent in March 2007 and has since remained at the same high level. Should interest rates keep rising and the housing market stays weak, even home-equity loans (largely with adjustable interest rates) are feared to go sour. The value of home-equity loans stood at 283.6 trillion won as of the end of September 2007, 94 percent of which were of the adjustable-rate variety. A one-percentage point increase in interest rates on home-equity loans is anticipated to add 550,000 won annually to the amount each borrower must repay.

Trend #4: Start of a "Big Bang" in the Financial Industry

The introduction of the Capital Market Consolidation Law (due to take effect in February 2009) promises to bring fundamental changes to the financial industry. Securities firms will be permitted to deal with all financial businesses except for banking and insurance businesses. An assortment of financial products will be based on the principle of "negative-listing" (meaning everything will be allowed unless prohibited specifically in the law), bringing down barriers between financial businesses and ushering in unlimited competition across virtually all types of institution within the sector.

Therefore, securities firms looking to expand the scope of their opportunities will likely seek to bulk their capital size through merger and acquisition or by acquiring asset management companies. In terms of the total assets, Korea's top three securities firms currently account for only one one-hundredth of the top three global investment banks. However, after the anticipated wave of such M&As, the domestic securities business will likely augment its weight relative to the financial industry as a whole.

Banks and insurance providers, as well, will make every effort to improve their competitiveness in the run up to the Capital Market Consolidation Law taking effect. It is envisioned that financial holding companies, mostly set up by commercial banks, will acquire or establish securities firms. Those already in possession of securities firms will enlarge departments related to investment banking and recruit more professionals.

Through the Ministry of Finance and Economy (MOFE), the government is also exploring ways to encourage M&A among financial institutions so that they can grow in size and cover operations of a broader scope. For instance, the ministry will provide tax incentives by, say, reducing the tax burden associated with M&As, lift regulations on private equity funds and allow hedge funds to merge with and acquire domestic or foreign financial institutions.

Trend #5: Full-Blown Convergence between Broadcasting and Communications and between Wired and Wireless Communications

SK Telecom's acquisition of Hanaro Telecom (wired telecom provider) from the AIG/Newbridge consortium announced in December 2007 is leading the Korean telecommunication market into a new competitive phase. KT (wired telecom provider) is considering merging with its wireless telecom subsidiary KTF while LG Dacom (wired telecom provider) plans to list its subsidiary LG Powercomm (and Internet service provider) on the Korea Stock Exchange and subsequently merge with it. The government has also developed policy measures to facilitate convergence between broadcasting and communications and between wired and wireless communications by consolidating the number of designated business lines and streamlining regulatory organizations.

For example, the number of business lines was reduced in December 2007 from the previous eight, which included local/long-distance/international calls, Internet access, VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) and telex, down to three, namely transmission, frequency provision and the leasing service of telecommunications circuit facilities

Meanwhile, separate regulatory organizations responsible for communications and broadcasting were integrated into the Committee to Promote Broadcasting/Communications Convergence under the Office of Prime Minister in July 2006. An integrated regulatory organization to govern this matter is expected to emerge later.

As a result of such convergence, the communications industry will develop a new competitive structure. The industry at present is primarily driven by competition among the top three wireless telecom service providers and the top three wired service providers. However, on the assumption that KT and SKT will maintain the dominant positions in the markets for wired and wireless communication services, respectively, the industry will be led by the top two comprehensive (wired plus wireless) service providers (KT and SKT) followed by one smaller provider (LG).

Trend #6: Hypercompetition Boundary Collapse among Markets and Industries

Competition in the future will not be affected by conventional barriers among industries, technologies, distribution and markets. As consumer needs become more complicated and technological barriers lower, some "gray market" companies will emerge. That is, new types of enterprises that are not illegal, but rather defy conventional competition rules and existing market demarcation.

For example, distributors may vie more intensely to secure new distribution channels. Also, in the electronics market, originally separate markets may overlap with one another as digital convergence products are developed. In fact, this phenomenon is already evident. Designer clothes, which were once only handled by specialty stores, are now sold by discount outlets or overseas purchase agents at reasonable prices. Also, the fast growth of satellite-based automobile navigation has prompted multimedia companies to combine their products with global positioning capabilities in order to gain a beachhead in this burgeoning market.

Trend #7: Multicultural and Globalized Families and Society

Korea is expected to welcome progressively more foreigners and foreign cultures. An increasing inflow of foreign workers and immigrants by international marriage brought the number of foreigners residing in Korea above the one-million mark as of August 2007. Over 50 foreign communities across the country exert multicultural influence on Korean society.

The Internet and cable TV facilitate the inflow of foreign cultural content and members of the younger generation increasingly go abroad and to experience other cultures. U.S. and Japanese dramas claim huge, enthusiastic audiences, resulting in the creation of some 1,400 Internet clubs that further increase the viewership of the shows. Moreover, domestic TV shows help familiarize Koreans with foreign culture by increasingly featuring more foreigners and by covering diverse themes. This has even given birth to a new term, "media nomadism," which refers to the phenomenon whereby the media does not stick to conventional forms or traditions, but rather encompasses a variety of cultures.

Trend #8: Shifts in Education Policy Direction Valuing Excellence over Equality

The incoming government plans to trim the size and power of the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development and merge it with the science and technology ministry. The current egalitarianism-based education policy will be scrapped. Local governments and universities will be given greater autonomy and parents and students will have more options.

More than one hundred new independent private high schools are to be established to encourage competition for higher quality education and dampen the urge to enroll in after-school private academies. Such private high schools do not depend on state subsidies and therefore operate with full autonomy.

On the contentious issue of university admissions policy, universities will likely have more leeway in deciding on how to use the grading system in scoring the national academic achievement examination for university entrance, and how much high school records should be reflected in the admissions system.

In addition, the new administration will establish college systems that will make domestic colleges or universities internationally competitive in research capability. It will lay the groundwork for global research-centered universities by giving financial support toward research according to the research competitiveness of applicant universities. It will consolidate various and scattered R&D related policies of the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development and thus enhance the efficiency of R&D budget execution.

Trend #9: National Assembly Elections and Shifts in the Political Landscape

The 18th elections for the National Assembly scheduled for April 9th 2008 are likely to revolve around two key issues: on the one hand, the need of the GNP, the new ruling party, to secure more than half the seats within the legislature; and on the other hand, the need by the opposition to check the power of the same ruling party. At present, the GNP is expected to win a significant number of seats, but perhaps not as many as party leaders hope if voters think more checks and balances are needed in the National Assembly. Any early errors by the new administration, lackluster GNP candidates or doubts about the Lee administration's ability may result in a more mixed political landscape.

Voters in the Seoul metropolitan area will play a decisive role in the elections and consequently in the rearrangement of regionalism in politics. After the local elections of 2006, economic concerns, not regionalism, became the overriding voter concern, ultimately leading to the return of the conservative GNP to power. Unless major changes occur, a new political landscape may emerge characterized by a huge ruling party supported by voters in the Seoul metropolitan area and the Gyeongsang Provinces, plus several smaller parties that draw support from the Jeolla or Chungcheong provinces.

Trend #10: More Moderate Pace of Improvement in the Inter-Korean Relationship

Given the uncertainty about whether North Korea will proceed with its promised denuclearization, the new administration is very likely to insist on this issue as the top priority for better inter-Korean relations. It will focus on "mutual engagement" rather than "unilateral engagement." Thus, any further assistance to the North will be expected to hinge on the North's dismantling of its nuclear program. However, it will likely adopt a flexible support policy toward the North even before denuclearization occurs should there be concrete signs the country is progressing in this direction.

North Korea is currently in denial about its uranium enrichment program and is expected to declare a plutonium stock of less than the internationally suspected 50 kilograms. Even if the North makes an exact declaration about the state of its nuclear program, it is highly unlikely that negotiations on nuclear dismantlement in the second half of 2008 will proceed smoothly. However, considering that the North needs to leave room for negotiations with the next U.S. administration, which will commence in January 2009, it will likely refrain from extreme action such as a second nuclear test. ◦

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