South Korea is getting "safe haven status" from foreign investors as its current account surplus and the accumulated foreign reserves are serving as defense against possible cross-border capital flight, experts said Sunday.
South Korea used to suffer from massive foreign capital outflows whenever a financial crisis cropped up. But Asia's fourth-largest economy is now differentiating itself from other emerging countries such as India and Indonesia which are struggling to curb capital outflows and currency depreciation, sparked by speculation over U.S. monetary stimulus tapering.
Economists said in e-mailed interviews with Yonhap News Agency that the Fed's tapering risks would have limited impacts on South Korea as the sustained current account surplus, a pile-up in the FX reserve and a fall in short-term foreign debt serve as buffer against external shocks.
"Investors are rewarding Korea with safe haven status, now that credit fundamentals have much improved. Short-term external debt, FX reserves, fiscal deficit metrics are stronger," said Wai Ho Leong, an economist at Barclays Capital. "I am confident there will be no repeat of 1997 for Korea."
Juliana Lee, a senior economist at Deutsche Bank, said that South Korea is "weathering the storm well due to its improved fundamentals."
Concerns over foreign capital flights from emerging nations are growing as market players are betting that the U.S. Federal Reserve will decide to begin tapering its bond-buying stimulus program at its policy meeting slated for Sept. 17-18.
South Korea has traumatic experience of undergoing massive fund outflows and subsequent sharp currency weakness in 1997 and 2008. In 1998, the Korean economy contracted 5.7 percent and it grew 0.3 percent in 2009, hit by the 2008 global financial crisis.
Mindful of such risks, Korea has boosted its FX reserves to over US$330 billion and taken a set of steps to curb excessive cross-border capital flows such as restriction on banks' handling of forward contracts.
It posted a current account surplus for the 18th straight month in July and the short-term external debt declined to $119.6 billion as of end-June, the lowest in over six years.
Foreigners remained buyers of a net 1.5 trillion won ($1.37 billion) worth of local stocks in August, the second straight month of net purchases, according to the financial watchdog. Bond funds posted an outflow last month, but excluding the value of maturing debt, overseas investors were still net buyers of Seoul bonds.
"Korea has sufficient buffers against the consequences of rising U.S. yields and the Fed's tapering of quantitative easing," said Terence Tayseop Lim, representative director at Macquarie Securities Korea. "Korea is well positioned due to the better scores on inflation, output gap, the current account and funds flow. The impact will be limited."
Kang Jae-joon, head of research at Franklin Templeton Korea, echoed similar views.
He said that as the U.S. and the eurozone are on the recovery and the Chinese economy is seen as stabilizing, jitters in smaller emerging nations are not likely to spur big troubles for the export-dependent Korean economy.
"Investors may even reallocate more risk to the stronger economies. Korea is likely to be one of the winners," Leong said.
But experts also warned against any complacency as Korea is not fully immune to volatile foreign capital flows due to its high market openness.
"The Korean government may have to prepare a probable negative spill-over impact from other peripheral emerging countries where we cannot rule out a possibility of currency crisis," said John Park, chief investment officer at Baring Asset Management Korea.
Sohn Sung-won, a professor at the California State University, noted that the Fed's tapering will lead Korea's market rates to further rise, which could weigh on the local economy.
"I think that capital outflows could occur to some degree, possibly raising currency and price volatility... The current situation is different from what it was in 1997 or 2008. But authorities should prepare for possible negative scenarios," he added.