Back in 1997 major financial slump rocked number of countries in Asia, an event that became known as “Asian currency crisis”. Effected countries included Taiwan, Thailand South Korea and others. One of the memorable comments of the time came from one of leading Thai politicians. He blamed this whole mess on speculators, with George Soros being the main culprit. The remarks went so far as to public statement of “not being able to guarantee his safety if he visited Thailand”. Quite ominous.
The fallout in South Korea was brutal. The US Dollar has about doubled in value against the Won, with USD-KRW moving from just above 800 in early 1997, to 1600 by the year’s end. Local stock market suffered similar fate, as did all areas of economy. Perhaps most telling was an enormous spike in unemployment, as the jobless rate soared to almost double digits, with about 9 million people out of work.
This author observed the aftermath first hand, during one of his business trips to South Korea at that time. Collapse of once high flying conglomerate Daewoo under burden of debt. The sight of many construction projects suspended or stopped all over Seoul and Pusan. Daily failure of scores of small business. It was good time to visit South Korea, due to low prices, but very difficult period for residents.
The country has rebounded nicely since then and became one of Asia’s most dynamic economies. KRW strengthen considerably reaching level 900 against USD in 2007. The stock market has recorded double digit gains in four of the last five years, gaining 32% in last year alone. Korean companies like Samsung Electronics Co, and Hyundai Motors Co, have established themselves as some of the world’s leading corporations.
Things have changed in 2008. Challenges like high oil prices, inflation, external debt and account deficit have shaken investors confidence. While many countries have seen outflow of funds into the dollar, this process became especially painful in South Korea. The Won has become the Asia’s worst performing currency, loosing 20% to date. Stock market was no better, falling 25%, with farther sell off of equities expected.
These developments created widely spread comparisons to situation from 1997 and were quick to be picked by the press. International Monetary Fund disagrees with this assessment and expressed confidence by saying that South Korea is a mature and resilient economy with country’s fundamentals much stronger than a decade ago. Korean financial authorities, however, felt obligated to act by intervention on Wons behalf in the open market. This seemed to stop the bleeding for now.
What can be expected next? In all reality, 1997 type sell off is extremely unlikely. As South Korean economy is cooling down together with the rest of the world, Seoul might not be able to stop bleeding of the stock market but there is one thing they can do- keep intervening on behalf of its currency. Unlike before, there are huge foreign reserves, about 250 billion dollars worth of, and they can be used to support Won.
Very likely scenario, as of this writing, is continued fall of Korean equities, in tune with broader stock declines. The Won should also keep dropping, but in much more measured and steady pace. Central Bank has not mentioned what the comfortable level for USD-KRW is, but as we noticed over last few years, major trends are very powerful and can go through any “line in the sand’ drawn by anybody.
Current rate is around 1150. Even with expected interventions, Won can easily weaken to 1300 and maybe 1400, but far short of the previous low of 1600. Also, one shouldn’t look for a fast move, but rather steady depreciation, lasting a year or two. This is not a situation for active traders, but for those who prefer longer term positions current development might present good opportunity for farther selling of KRW.