Economist Magazine Conference on Korea 1: Not Quite an Open Economy


The ideas in this post and the next expand on the arguments made in my recent JoongAng Daily op-ed.

Every year the Economist runs a series of conferences on the political economy of Asia. If you are in this part of the world, you should probably go if you can. Here is the link for this year’s on Korea, and here is my review of last year’s. I thank the Economist‘s East Asia staff for inviting me. They are generous enough to realize that academics could never find the $1000 door fee. Sigh. It’s fairly embarrassing to the profession that we have to be comp’d in order to get into these sorts of things. And it is a good reminder that when it comes to the real world and stuff that matters (ie, money), professors scarcely matter. 😦 As with last year, I found it ‘maturing’ to sit in a room with very wealthy people, in very nice suits, focused on the very serious business of making lots of money. ‘Plutonomy’ is pretty imposing.

The Korean line this year from the officials present, including the finance minister, was that Korea is a “small and open economy.” This is manifestly untrue, by OECD standards of openness, and it was disheartening to see so little honesty about how deeply intertwined the Korean government is in the economy. The people from Moody’s in the lobby were even handing out a report about Korea’s ‘public policy banks.’ There is a lengthy political economy literature on Korean statism, and for those who like the idea of state intervention in the economy, Korea is a widely used example. Korea is better defined as small and corporatist, with latter deployed to overcome the former. Korea is sharply divided economy with tight but large conglomerate bloc at the top (the chaebol) overawing the rest of the economy. These firms get such generous access to the state, and its budget and moral approval, that Korea, Inc. is more liberal corporatism than liberalism. And Korean consumers, with debt at 155% of household income (one of the highest ratios in the world), pay out the nose to prop of this oligarchy.

Industrial policy is a reflex here; I see it all the time. Every time I ask my students about some change in the Korean economy, their first response is to say the government should do this or that about it. I get paper after paper about how the government should spend on this or that critical or strategic industry, or how Korea must outcompete Japan, or how the Korean government should ‘lead/guide/administer/direct/run’ the economy. I almost never get liberals in my classes, although to be fair, when I get Japanese and Chinese students, they talk the same way. Korean academics at conferences here are similar. I almost never hear the run-of-the-mill liberal notion that the economy should simply evolve as it will, without direction from the state. When I tell my students that the American car industry deserves to take a beating for making poor vehicles, they look bewildered. When I tell them that Apple should have pounded Samsung in the smart phone wars, except that the ROKG kept the iPhone out with NTBs for 2 years, they tell me that was a good thing. When I tell my students that the jeonse security deposit system doesn’t exist in the US, and that even lower middle class Americans can afford to move out during college, they are amazed. (The jeonse system is one of the most regressive, upwardly redistributive, oligarchy-reinforcing,  middle class-crushing elements of the Korean economy.) And indeed you could see the mercantilist reflex all over the conference, even though no one wanted to say it.

a. When the issue of exchange rates came up, the same division as last year of foreigners vs. Koreans arose. The Korean speakers all defended the interventionist notion that Korea had to ‘compete’ with yen and the dollar, and should value the won against them. That pegging like this is in fact exchange rate manipulation (as the Japanese FinMin said last week) was simply not admitted. That is it unnatural for Korea’s economy to grow faster than the US and Japan while the won does not appreciate meaningfully against their currencies was unanswered. I saw Bernie Lo on MSNBC a few weeks ago note that Korea has grown 4x faster than the US in the last 2 years, but the currency has appreciate by just 10% or so. Wow; that’s so unnatural, it can’t possibly be explained without targeted intervention. Not one speaker defended the liberal notion that Korea’s currency should simply float; in fact, I am not sure I even heard the word ‘liberal’ or ‘float’ the whole day. Last year, the euphemism for such competitive devaluation was ‘fine-tuning;’ this year it was ‘smoothing.’

b. When the idea of Korean banks functioning globally arose, the Korean speakers argued for a mega-bank so that Korea could ‘compete’ and support its MNCs overseas. Again the idea that Korea as entity must compete against other states and ‘their’ MNCs is a fundamentally mercantilist notion. Korea is not competing against anyone, in the liberal view. Firms compete, and consumers, as rational buyers weighing quality against cost, should not buy ‘nationalistically.’ No one said anything like this: that Korea’s banks should simply evolve as they pursue profitability, and if some of them M&A into a mega-bank, then ok. Instead, the state officials (not private bankers) were saying Korea needed a ‘mega-bank.’ Sounds an awful lot like another flag-carrying national champion, like Samsung, or Air France, with lots of cheap government capital and buddies in the bureaucracy, no? One of the Economist hosts thankfully had the temerity to call this a ‘vanity project.’ Hah! That was the most insightful line of the day.

Part two of this post is here.

2 thoughts on “Economist Magazine Conference on Korea 1: Not Quite an Open Economy

  1. Pingback: Economist Magazine Conf. on Korea (2): Import Competition Needed! « Asian Security Blog

  2. Pingback: Lankov Offers the Pyongyang Perspective | Rearranging Prejudices

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