HH Korea’s Booming, Except It’s Not

Back in October, the Bank of Korea raised its economic outlook for the country. The central bank’s economic models foresaw rising fortunes, leading them toward a central tendency of 3% growth. At that level, Korea’s economy would be growing at the fastest rate in three years (what happened in between?).

It was as much a nod to the idea of “globally synchronized growth.” The bank actually came right out and said so, attributing the increase in its modeled projections to capital expenditures but more so South Korea’s far-reaching export sector. Global demand was rising, they believed, so for an export-sensitive economy that would be very good news.

Policymakers were so confident about it that a month later in November 2017 the central bank’s Monetary Policy Board voted to raise its benchmark rate for the first time in more than six years. From a record low of 1.25%, the policy target was boosted by 25 bps in anticipation of what all central bankers right now are talking about – a boom.

Korea’s export sector, however, isn’t as widely diversified as that of other nations. Several key industries make up the lion’s share of outbound trade. At the top of the list is automobiles where the Hyundai and Kia brands dominate.

Earlier this month, in what was a clear warning, South Korean automakers reported rather dismal results for 2017, particularly Q4. Total sales among the country’s top 5 OEM’s, Hyundai, Kia, GM Korea, Renault Samsung, and Ssangyong, were reported to have been 8,196,053 units. That was down a rather stark 6.9% from what was sold in 2016.

Though domestic car sales were lower, too, falling 2.4% year-over-year, by far it was the export of vehicles that dragged down results. These manufacturers sold 1.55 million units inside South Korea in 2017, but 6.65 million outside. Thus, a 7.9% contraction in vehicle exports really stings the overall Korean economy.

That fact was reinforced by GDP statistics released yesterday. For the first time since 2008, South Korean real GDP shrank quarter-over-quarter. Exports fell by a stunning 5.5%, the largest quarterly decline in three decades. Construction spending also fell, really putting a dent in those October projections.

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