Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How Korea Solved Its Banking Crisis

The world can learn from our experience in the late '90s.

When world leaders met at the G-20 summit in Washington, D.C., last November, our hope was that by the first quarter of this year we would have largely overcome the financial crisis. At that time, leaders were primarily concerned with macroeconomic stimulus -- primarily fiscal stimulus -- to shorten the severe global recession.
Unfortunately, we are still struggling to deal with the financial turmoil, and financial institutions have yet to regain investors' confidence. The U.S. government recently announced its expanded plan to buy troubled assets that have been burdening banks. While I join others in hoping for the success of this plan, I believe that a true recovery requires all countries to do everything they can to stabilize the economy. If world leaders fail to come up with creative ways to deal with the current difficulties, credit will not flow.
For this reason, when the G-20 leaders meet in London next week, solving the financial meltdown -- with a special focus on removing impaired assets from the balance sheets of financial institutions -- must be our priority.
In the late 1990s, Korea was hit by a financial crisis, and having successfully overcome it, we have valuable lessons to offer. By committing to the following basic principles based on the Korean experience, world leaders will be well prepared as they create a plan to remove impaired assets.
First, bold and decisive measures, rather than incremental ones, are required to regain market confidence. Korea's successful experience illustrates this point. The Korean government tapped various sources to raise a public fund of $127.6 billion (159 trillion KRW) during the period from 1997 to 2002 -- equivalent to 32.4% of Korea's GDP in 1997 -- to resolve impaired assets and recapitalize financial institutions. Given the magnitude of the current challenges, the world cannot afford a minimalist approach.
Second, our experience suggests that bank recapitalization and creating a "bad bank" are not mutually exclusive options; the simultaneous application of both can have a positive effect. Korea established a specialized independent agency, the Korea Asset Management Corporation (Kamco) as a bad bank, while at the same time, the Korea Deposit Insurance Corporation was involved in recapitalizing financial institutions. Kamco purchased the impaired assets and settled the gains or losses with the financial institutions involved once the assets recovered their value. It acquired impaired assets at $30.9 billion -- the book value of which amounted to $85.1 billion by 2002 -- and recovered $33.9 billion by 2008 by reselling to private investors through various methods, including public auctions, direct sales, international tenders, securitization and debt-equity swaps.
Third, it is critical to ensure that the implemented measures are made politically acceptable and that moral hazard is minimized. A special mechanism should be devised for shareholders, managers, workers and asset holders to bear their fair share of the burden. In the case of Korea, capital injections were limited to financial institutions that were systemically important and deemed to be viable after recapitalization.
Fourth, these measures should have built-in exit strategies with clear time frames. There should be a plan for shares of entities that are held by the government to be turned over to the private sector. Additionally, nationalization of banks shouldn't be a goal, but a temporary measure.
Fifth, although government will take the lead in such plans, private capital should be encouraged to fully participate in the process. Obviously, the process itself must be transparent. Korea's experience suggests that it would be useful, on a temporary basis, for governments to purchase impaired assets at a price agreed to with the troubled financial institutions, and then settle the gains or losses with the financial institutions after reselling. The problem of impaired assets today may be of a different nature, since they arise from off-balance sheet bundled derivatives. But this difficulty makes the ex post settlement scheme all the more useful.
Sixth, all forms of financial protectionism should be rejected in the process. Ideally, countries would have a common method for dealing with impaired assets. However, since countries have different financial realities, we should leave it up to each country to craft their own policy. And a coordinated effort is needed to ensure that regular cross-border capital flows are not interrupted.
To that effect, I welcome the G-20 finance ministers' agreement called "Restoring Lending: A Framework for Financial Repair and Recovery," which reflects Korea's proposal. Without abiding by these principles, macroeconomic stimulus measures will not do much good in alleviating the severe global economic recession.
Mr. Lee is president of the Republic of Korea.

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