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2017-08-03 19:12
By Park Hyong-ki

In the movie, “Too Big To Fail,” there are scenes where Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke are discussing potential measures they need to take in response to the fallout of subprime mortgages.

Over breakfast and meetings, the two leaders in finance are trying to pick each other’s brains to come up with the best solution that can prevent the global economy from falling apart.

Paulson played by William Hurt and Bernanke by Paul Giamatti, the cable television movie is based on a book of the same title and a true story written by journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin.

It is entertaining because there are a lot of conflicts in the movie between characters, and the treasury secretary and politicians, as well as chiefs of investment banks that bet on those toxic financial assets.

There is a scene where Paulson kneels down before Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States House of Representative, begging her for a bipartisan agreement on a bailout program for the banks to keep capital flowing in the market.

There are also scenes where the treasury secretary and his team had to toughen up against the banks to draw a bailout deal, and many more of Paulson battling as he tries to handle the mess, which was considered the biggest crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

But it was very peculiar to see Paulson and Bernanke because the scenes involving the two contained no conflict, but only showed coordination and interdependence ― how best to play their given roles as the fiscal policymaker and the lender of last resort in times of trouble.

One cannot help but wonder whether the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Bank of Korea (BOK) can work like that in this country, as many say, filled with distrust, discontent and insecurity.

So far, during the former administration, the two had been at odds over a number of issues ranging from interest rates, policy bank recapitalization to household debt and fiscal spending.

The finance ministry had pressured for a lower interest rate, showing no consideration or respect for the BOK.

The BOK fired back, criticizing the ministry and financial regulators’ housing and corporate policy mismanagement that ended up fueling household debt especially among the middle- and low-income earners, and worsening policy banks and corporate debt.

Unlike the cooperative scenes between the two agencies in the movie, albeit dramatized for entertainment, there have been conflicts between the two here. Their relationship has almost looked similar to that of the one between prosecutors and police ― a hate-hate relationship.

Korea faces so many structural problems to its economy, and one agency alone will not be able to deal with them by forcing others to follow orders and do what it wishes, and showing indifference to the other’s strengths.

It is time to reflect and see what kind of relationship the two want to have in the new age of more complexity and uncertainty.

The central bank should no longer be viewed as a “helpless tiger that lost his claws and teeth” because it has no regulatory authority in the financial market.

And the finance ministry should really start to communicate with the BOK and other agencies and professionals ― especially the public ― on how to solve Korea’s mountains of problems.

It wasted a lot of taxpayers’ money in trying to revive the birthrate and failed to stabilize the debt and the housing market for the middle class.

With the U.S. poised to raise its federal funds rate later this year, which could surpass the Korean rate and potentially ignite a capital outflow, the BOK has signaled again that it could readjust its monetary policy as the economy improves on exports.

It signaled a possible rate hike in the future in June. The BOK has maintained the policy rate at a historic low 1.25 percent for a year.

The rate rise, however, will come at a price. It could make the lives of the middle and poorer classes with mortgages a lot harder. When one income group falls, it will severely affect other classes.

The number of households with high default risks stood at 315,000 at the end of March 2016, up 18,000 from a year earlier. Their debt also rose by 15.6 trillion won to 62 trillion won. According to the bank, the nation's household debt rose 11.1 percent to 1,359.7 trillion won at the end of March 2016, which is tantamount to 93 percent of the nation's GDP.

The question is whether the central bank and the finance ministry, as well as the rest of the group, will come together and become interdependent picking each other’s brains to fix Korea's problems, or will they still argue for meaningless hierarchy and independence from one another.


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