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(LEAD) S. Korea needs to address inevitabilities of household debt: economists

2017/06/28 18:41

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By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, June 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea does not face an imminent crisis over its growing household debt, but it needs to address some inevitabilities, foreign economists said Wednesday.

South Korea's household debt stood at 1,359.7 trillion won (US$1.2 trillion) as of end-March, a dramatic increase from 665 trillion won at the end of 2007, according to the Bank of Korea.

The ratio of South Korea's household debt to gross domestic product came to 92.8 percent as of end-2016, up 4.7 percentage points from a year earlier, according to the data from the Switzerland-based Bank for International Settlements.

Christophe Andre, a senior economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said that Denmark and the Netherlands have much higher household debt compared to income in the past. He said that when housing prices fell following the 2008 global financial crisis it had a big impact on consumption and the economy of these countries as a whole.

The expert, however, said people were still able to repay their dues and the financial sector didn't experience a lot of problems.

"The problem is they had to cut their consumption to do this. And that's a risk also for Korea," Andre said in an interview with local reporters on the sidelines of an international conference on rising household debt.

South Korea has announced that it will tighten lending rules on homes in some designated speculative areas to curb real estate speculation.

Under the measures to be put into effect July 3, the loan-to-value ratio in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province, some areas in Busan and the administrative capital of Sejong will be lowered to 60 percent from 70 percent.

The debt-to-income ratio in the areas will be marked down to 50 percent from 60 percent.

Andre said South Korea's move is "appropriate."

   Atif Mian, professor of economics and public policy at Princeton University, who also came for the conference, said South Korea has certain advantages in the event of an economic slowdown, citing its robust export sector, a floating currency and independent monetary policy.

"In the event of a slowdown you have an export market to look towards for sources of growth, for sources of demand, you have the monetary policy independence and exchange rate flexibility to absorb some of the shocks in terms of domestic demand slowdown," Mian said. All of those are positives for Korea.

Mian-- co-author of "House of Debt" -- said that when credit slows down, it could exert a negative influence on overall domestic demand for South Korea.

He said South Korean officials are caught in a catch-22 situation where they know credit needs to slow down, but when they take measures to slow down credit and are successful, they are faced with the problem of the overall economy taking a hit.

"The key challenge for policymakers is to come up with a way where you can slow down credit growth but at the same time generate other sources of domestic demand," he said.

Atif Mian (R), professor of economics and public policy at Princeton University, and Christophe Andre, a senior economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, speak during an interview with South Korean reporters in Seoul on June 28, 2017. (Yonhap) Atif Mian (R), professor of economics and public policy at Princeton University, and Christophe Andre, a senior economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, speak during an interview with South Korean reporters in Seoul on June 28, 2017. (Yonhap)

Separately, Mian and Andre said immigration could be a solution to South Korea's demographic problems -- a chronically low birthrate and rapidly aging population.

South Korea's total fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime -- stood at 1.25 in 2016, much lower than the replacement level of 2.1 that would keep South Korea's population of 51 million stable.

Last year, the number of South Koreans over 65 came to more than 6.76 million, accounting for 13.2 percent of all people living in the country, according to the country's statistics office. Nations become an "aged society" if people aged over 65 make up 14 percent or more of the population.

Mian said countries in Europe have benefited from immigration as it boosted the labor force, but Japan has suffered by not opening up the economy to immigration to the degree that it needs.

"So that's one area that Korea can potentially look at," Mian said.

Some South Koreans are still reluctant to accept foreigners as part of their community. A World Values Survey ranked South Korea at 51st out of 59 countries in terms of racial awareness. Some 44 percent of South Koreans felt negative toward foreign workers and immigrants in the same survey, which was the fourth-highest ratio among all countries studied.

entropy@yna.co.kr

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