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Emerging Markets

Seoul woos wealthy homebuyers but prices locals out of the market



The view from the top of the International Finance Center on Seoul’s glitzy Yeouido island is stunning, as city officials rightly point out, taking in the wide, winding Han river and the Bukhan Mountain on the city’s northern edge.

The South Korean capital is marketing itself as an alternative to Asia’s traditional financial hubs. Local authorities are hoping that its plush offices — such as those at the IFC — and an incentive package for relocating companies that helps with rent, wages and interpreter costs will help sweeten the deal.

So far, three foreign companies have taken up the relocation packages and are setting up new offices in the IFC, according to the local authority. The question is: will foreign workers be prepared to turn their backs on Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai and move here?

Andrew Gilholm, an analyst with consultancy Control Risks, has been a Seoul resident for about six years. “It is the most underrated place in Asia,” he says.

“It’s a bit intangible, but it’s got more of its own identity than some of the other cities I have lived in,” says Gilholm, who has also been a resident in Singapore, Shanghai and London.

A new development in Hannam, an area popular with business people and diplomats
A new development in Hannam, an area popular with business people and diplomats

Seoul has tried to position itself as a regional financial centre before, but success has been limited. Im Guk-hyun, the financial industry team leader in the Seoul government, thinks the city’s competitiveness has been boosted recently by the imposition of the national-security law in Hong Kong and South Korea’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic — as of this week, the country has recorded 488 deaths.

Optimism that Seoul could one day be the region’s leading financial centre has been buoyed by the surprise decision taken by The New York Times to move part of its digital operations there from Hong Kong, due to fears over Hong Kong press freedoms. At the same time, South Korea is enjoying growing global recognition of its cultural exports such as the K-pop band BTS and the breakthrough film Parasite.

But compared with Hong Kong and Singapore, South Korea is still hamstrung by tough regulations, an inflexible labour market and higher tax rates, says Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul.

H&H Seoul map-web

James Kim, chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, is more upbeat. “There is always a misnomer, that Korea is a difficult place to live, a difficult place to work,” he says. “I can tell you from dealing with all the CEOs [of US companies], they all want to stay in Korea.”

For many ordinary Seoulites, however, the city’s plans to woo more wealthy foreign executives will matter little as a years-long residential property bubble is exacerbated by record-low interest rates.

JH Kim, 41, an office worker who is married with two children, says the price tag for the apartment he rents in Jamsil has doubled since he moved into the area in the east of the city six years ago. The average price in the affluent suburb has increased by more than 100 per cent to Won1.58bn (£1.07m) over the past five years, according to Real Estate 114, a local property consultancy.

“Although we are a dual-income family, we cannot afford to buy an apartment here,” Kim says. “It has become out of reach.”

Stabilising the red-hot property market of the greater Seoul area — in which about half the country’s population lives — has become one of the biggest policy challenges facing South Korean president Moon Jae-in.

When he took office in 2017, Moon promised to address the housing problem in one of his key social welfare policies, but since then prices in Seoul have surged more than 50 per cent — the fastest pace in the world, according to statistics site Numbeo. The average property in Seoul is now 14 times Koreans’ average annual household income, according to KB Bank data; three years ago, it was 11 times that.

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While the affluent Gangnam, which translates to “south of the river”, has been immortalised by the electronic music parody “Gangnam Style”, scores of other areas are popular with foreigners, from Seongbuk-dong, the hillside diplomatic enclave overlooking the city, to the trendy, up-and-coming Yeonnam district or Seorae Village, the city’s French quarter, which is popular with young families.

Housing costs in the South Korean capital have surged by more than 50 per cent since 2017 © Getty Images

As with other north-east Asian cities, Seoul swings through stark seasonal changes from sub-zero winters to steaming summers, to which expats need to acclimatise. Throughout the year, hiking trails and riverside cycling are natural choices for a trip out of the concrete jungle, always to be concluded with a sumptuous Korean barbecue, cold draught beer and a nip or two of soju.

Gilholm says there are difficulties living in Seoul — tedious battles with bureaucracy among them — but adds that neighbouring North Korea’s military provocations rarely concern him.

“Tax and cost of living are toward the top of my list; Kim Jong Un obliterating me is not one of the considerations.”

Buying guide

  • Renters be prepared: some South Korean landlords favour Jeonse — or key deposit — over charging a higher monthly rent. The unique system, which is slowly fading from popularity, means fronting a hefty deposit that the landlord is free to invest and later return at the end of the lease.

What you can buy for . ..

$1.5m A three-bedroom apartment in bustling Itaewon, known for its nightlife.

$2.1m A three-bedroom apartment in glitzy Gangnam, the city’s modern district south of the Han River, full of high-end apartments, luxury fashion houses and plastic-surgery clinics.

$4.2m A three-bedroom luxury apartment in Hannam, with its stunning view of the Han River and Mt Nam, a popular area with elite business executives and foreign diplomats.

Additional reporting by Kang Buseong in Seoul and Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong

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Emerging Markets

Bolsonaro faces investigation over election fraud claims




Brazilian politics updates

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s legal problems have multiplied after a court opened an investigation into his unsubstantiated warnings of voter fraud in presidential elections next year, a probe which could lead to him being disqualified from running.

The judicial inquiry comes as the far-right leader’s ratings are on the slide following accusations of his incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than half a million Brazilians.

Rising living costs and allegations of corruption in vaccine procurement within his administration have damaged Bolsonaro’s standing further.

With political pressure building, the populist has increased attacks on the electronic voting system in recent weeks, reiterating calls for the adoption of printed paper receipts in order to avoid manipulation.

Opponents fear the former army captain is seeking to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, in preparation for refusing to recognise a potential defeat. A group of 18 current and former Supreme Court justices have defended the current ballot system, which was introduced in 1996, insisting that Brazil had eliminated election fraud.

The Superior Electoral Court this week opened an administrative probe into Bolsonaro over his claims, for which he has provided no evidence. It also asked the Supreme Court to investigate whether the president had committed a crime by disseminating fake news about the voting system.

The president hit back on Tuesday. “I will not accept intimidation. I will continue to exercise my right as a citizen, to freedom of expression, criticism, to listen, and to meet, above all, the popular will,” Bolsonaro told supporters in Brasília.

The electoral court’s intervention showed the judiciary was striking back against Bolsonaro’s attacks, said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper in São Paulo. “He [Bolsonaro] is harming the rules of the game, of democracy and the institutions,” he added. “It’s not different to what [Donald] Trump did, and demagogues in other countries. His intention is to question the electoral process without proof.”

Both moves by the electoral court could in theory eventually pave the way for Bolsonaro being barred from standing in the 2022 poll.

“There is a long way until this can bring actual legal consequences against the president which might affect his eligibility,” said Rogério Taffarello, a partner in criminal law at Mattos Filho and professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “[This] does not mean, of course, that the existence of such investigations cannot generate political consequences”.

The president is already the subject of a criminal investigation into whether he failed to act on warnings about alleged irregularities by public officials in negotiations over vaccine purchases. Bolsonaro and the government deny any wrongdoing.

Protesters have taken to the streets in cities over the past two months calling for the impeachment of Bolsonaro, who in polls is trailing former leftwing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also a likely frontrunner in next year’s election.

Bolsonaro had long promised to present evidence of cheating in elections, even claiming that the 2018 ballot he won was tampered with. Yet last week he admitted to not holding any proof, only “indications”.

Despite his falling popularity, Bolsonaro retains backing in Congress from an amorphous grouping of centre-right political parties known as the Centrão, or “Big Centre”. Analysts said for now this support appeared to be holding.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice

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Emerging Markets

South Korea looks to fintech as household debt balloons to $1.6tn




South Korea Economy updates

After her family business of ferrying drunk people home was hit by closures of bars due to Covid-19 curfews and social distancing, Lee Young-mi* found herself juggling personal debts of about Won30m ($26,000).

The 56-year-old resident of Suncheon in South Korea was already struggling to pay off or refinance four credit cards, but now faces the prospect of those debts rapidly multiplying after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ve had little income for more than a year as not many people are out drinking until late into the night,” said Lee. “Now my husband won’t be able to work at all for the next three months after his surgery.”

Lee’s story is playing out across Asia’s fourth-largest economy as self-employed workers, who make up nearly a third of the labour force, have seen their incomes reduced sharply due to coronavirus restrictions. Now, after struggling for years to keep a lid on household debts that hit a record Won1,765tn ($1.6tn) in March, Seoul is looking to fintech companies and peer-to-peer lenders for answers. 

Chart showing increase in South Korea's household debt

Among them is PeopleFund, which touts tech-based investment products backed by machine learning that allow borrowers to refinance their higher-interest loans from banks and credit card companies.

The company has loaned at least $1bn to more than 7,500 customers since it was established in 2015. Its products allow borrowers to switch their debts to fixed-rate, amortised loans at annual interest rates of about 11 per cent, a change from the riskier floating rate, interest-only loans common in South Korea. 

PeopleFund has received about Won96.7bn in financing from brokerage CLSA, and along with Lendit and 8Percent is one of the first among the country’s 250 shadow banks to win a peer-to-peer lending licence. 

“The country’s most serious household debt problem is with unsecured non-bank loans, whose pricing has been too high. We can offer more affordable loans to ordinary people unable to receive bank loans,” Joey Kim, chief executive of PeopleFund, told the Financial Times.

The proliferation of digital lenders and fintechs in South Korea, where higher-risk borrowers are often cut off from bank financing, has been encouraged by the country’s government.

“We hope that P2P lenders will help resolve the dichotomy in the credit market by increasing the access of low-income people to mid-interest loans,” said an official at the Financial Supervisory Service.

South Korea’s household debt situation has become more pressing since the onset of the pandemic, with increases in borrowing for mortgages, to cover stagnating wages and to invest in the booming stock market. South Korean households are among the world’s most heavily indebted, with the average debt equal to 171.5 per cent of annual income.

South Korea’s household debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 103.8 per cent at the end of last year, compared with an average 62.1 per cent of 43 countries surveyed by the Bank for International Settlements.

Much of the new debt has been risky. Unsecured household loans from non-bank financial institutions were Won116.9tn as of March, up 33 per cent from four years ago, according to the Bank of Korea, much of it high interest loans taken out by poorer borrowers.

Getting on top of the problem has taken on national importance. In a rare warning in June, the central bank said the combination of high asset prices and excessive borrowing risked triggering a sell-off in markets and a rapid debt deleveraging.

“If financial imbalances increase further, this could dent our mid-to-long-term economic growth prospects,” BoK governor Lee Ju-yeol said in July.

The country’s economic planners, however, are struggling to contain debt-fuelled asset bubbles without undermining South Korea’s fragile economic recovery.

The government has attempted to address the danger by tightening lending rules. Regulators in July lowered the country’s maximum legal interest rate that private lenders can charge their customers from 24 to 20 per cent.

Economists caution that rising debt levels increase South Korea’s vulnerability to an economic shock. 

They also warn that the asset quality of financial institutions could be hit by a jump in distressed loans when the BoK rolls back monetary easing, expected in the fourth quarter.

“Monetary tightening is needed to curb asset bubbles but this will increase the household debt burden, holding back consumption further,” said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul. “The government is facing a dilemma.”

For Lee Young-mi, however, the 11 per cent rate offered by the PeopleFund is still too high. “I am not sure how to pay back the debt.”

*The name has been changed

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Emerging Markets

European and Chinese stocks rise after calming words from Beijing




Chinese equities updates

European shares chased gains in China after calls from Beijing for greater co-operation with Washington helped sooth jitters over a regulatory crackdown in the world’s biggest emerging market.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 index rose 0.7 per cent on Monday to hit new all-time highs, while the UK’s FTSE 100 rose 1 per cent led by economically sensitive stocks including banks and energy groups. London-listed lender HSBC gained 1 per cent after it reported second-quarter figures that easily beat analysts’ expectations.

The gains came after the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Beijing’s market regulator, called on Sunday for closer co-operation with Washington, stressing the country’s efforts to improve transparency and predictability after a crackdown on tutoring groups obliterated the market value of the $100bn sector’s biggest companies.

Chinese listings in the US have become a geopolitical flashpoint as Beijing has sought to exert greater control over the country’s powerful tech sector. The US Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday that Chinese groups that sought to sell shares in America would be subject to stricter disclosures.

Shares in China rebounded after their worst month in almost three years, with China’s CSI 300 benchmark of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed blue-chips rose 2.6 per cent on Monday, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index added 1.1 per cent. The city’s Hang Seng Tech index, which tracks big internet groups including Tencent and Alibaba, reversed early losses to rise 1 per cent. Futures tracking Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index climbed 0.6 per cent.

Last month, China’s cyber-security regulator announced plans to review all foreign listings by companies with data on more than 1m users after top leaders in Beijing called for an overhaul of how the country regulates initial public offerings in the US. The crackdown came just days after the $4.4bn listing of ride-hailing group Didi Chuxing.

The intensifying scrutiny of how Chinese groups access capital markets has pummelled stocks, delivering the worst month for China tech groups listed in the US since the global financial crisis. The Hang Seng Tech index fell 17 per cent last month.

“While we do not consider it prudent to completely avoid investments in China, further volatility can be expected until the first quarter of 2022, by which time we believe most regulatory changes may already be in place,” analysts at Credit Suisse wrote in a note on Monday.

Meanwhile, data released by China at the weekend showed that factory activity grew at the slowest pace in 15 months in July as demand contracted for the first time in more than a year.

Government bonds were steady with the yield on the benchmark German 10-year Bund, which moves inversely to its price, gaining 0.01 percentage points to minus 0.45. The equivalent US 10-year yield was steady at 1.234 per cent.

Bond yields have been falling in recent weeks, despite higher than expected inflation readings in the US and indications from the US federal Reserve last week that it was moving a step closer to the day when it would start tapering its $120bn in monthly asset purchases.

The euro rose 0.1 per cent against the dollar to $1.1885, while the pound gained 0.1 per cent to purchase $1.3924. Prices for global oil benchmark Brent crude fell 1 per cent to $74.66.

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