Published : 2013-01-29 19:55
Updated : 2013-01-29 19:55
President-elect Park Geun-hye is quoted as saying that her administration will start to grapple with snowballing household debt upon its inauguration ― an indication how seriously she takes the problem. She made the commitment Friday and reaffirmed it Sunday ― on each occasion that she was briefed by her transition team on the economic issues to which her administration will have to give top priority.
If she goes ahead with her commitment, Park will undoubtedly set herself apart from outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, whose administration has been accused of passing down a ticking bomb before it explodes. True, the Lee administration has frequently said that household debt is one of the most serious issues that can cripple the nation’s economy if not properly addressed. But it has taken no concrete action to solve the problem.
Household debt has ballooned under the Lee administration. Loans from commercial banks, which stood at 383.6 trillion won when the nation was being drawn into a global financial crisis in the third quarter of 2008, soared almost 20 percent to 459.3 trillion won in the corresponding quarter of last year. The amount of household debt doubled when it included loans from non-bank lenders, such as insurance companies ― 937.5 trillion won at the end of last September, to be precise.
A report from the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry set off alarm bells when it said last June that the nation’s percentage of household debt to gross domestic product stood at 81, 20 points higher than that of Greece, which was in the face of sovereign default and at a similar level to Spain with 82. The KCCI was the latest of a number of financial, economic and business organizations to warn of a household debt-triggered national crisis.
The Park administration could muddle through the household debt problem as its predecessor has done. But the economy would not be able to regain vitality if the Park administration fails to rein in fast growth in household debt. An increase in family income would not lead to more spending if debt servicing was a burden on households.
As the Bank of Korea confirms, more resources are diverted to service household debt. According to a report from the central bank on Monday, households spent as much as 19.4 trillion to pay off interest on their loans from commercial banks during the first three quarters of last year. Despite a sizable cut in the average interest rate, from 7.36 percent to 5.47 percent in three years, there was no substantial reduction in interest payments from the 20.3 trillion won in the first three quarters of 2008. The reason was that household debt continued to increase.
A larger portion of household income was used for interest payments to non-bank lenders. According to an estimate by the central bank, an additional 14 trillion won or more was used for this purpose each quarter from the second quarter of 2011 to third quarter of 2012.
It will come as no surprise if households are hard pressed to meet the interest-payment schedule. As the Hyundai Research Institute, a private economic think tank, put it, the burden of debt servicing is putting a brake on consumer spending.
If consumers continue to tighten their purse strings, the Park administration will find it difficult to spur growth and make good on the president-elect’s campaign promise to spend an additional 135 trillion won on welfare during the five years of her governance. For an early recovery from the long-lasting slump, Park said, it is necessary for the government to ease the debt obligations for delinquent borrowers although they are their own individual problems.
But the question is: Where is the money coming from? Park intends to create an 18 trillion won fund with seed money from the state-run Korea Asset Management Corp. If so, taxpayers will raise legitimate questions about rewarding those who have failed to meet their debt obligations.
As such, one of the first tasks for the Park administration will be to build a consensus on helping hard-pressed household debtors. At the same time, it will also have the herculean task of keeping moral hazard to the minimum when devising a way to subsidize debt reductions ― an unenviable task that will be put on the shoulders of Park’s first deputy prime minister for economic affairs.