Korea tensions trigger Asia market sell-off

23/11/2010 | Sid Verma

A deadly exchange of fire between North and South Korea on Tuesday triggered a sell-off in Asian markets as short-term risk aversion soared across the region.

But – barring a broader conflagration – the turmoil is unlikely to spark a slump in South Korean assets due to the country’s robust economic fundamentals, analysts said.

“We see a strong chance of further a pullback in the Korean won and stock market in the days ahead as more details about the incident emerge, particularly if public opinion in South Korea puts pressure on the government there to take a stronger stance,” said Brian Jackson, a Hong Kong-based analyst with RBC.

“But South Korea’s positive growth outlook and strong external position boosts the medium-term market outlook in South Korea.”

The Korean won lost 2.5% following reports that North Korea fired artillery at South Korea’s Big Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea, prompting reprisals from the South. India’s benchmark 30-share index, BSE Sensex, closed 1.3% lower.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index dropped 2.67% in reaction to tensions in the Korean peninsula. Asian markets were also rattled by concerns that other European nations may need financial support, following Ireland’s emergency bailout package this week.

Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura, said Tuesday’s flare- up is “potentially one of the most serious incidents that we have seen in the region for many years” coming in the wake of the sinking a South Korean warship in March.

But he said South Korea has enough policy bullets to head off a market slump. Korean business and consumer sentiment could take hit if tensions escalate further, but a weaker currency would boost the country’s export competitiveness and trade balance, he added.

The Bank of Korea has a record stockpile of $293 billion of foreign exchange reserves, which provides the authority with sufficient ammunition to provide emergency liquidity for financial markets. In addition, the BoK could restart currency swaps with the US Federal Reserve in the event of a dollar illiquidity crisis.

Deputy governors of the Bank of Korea and government agencies will hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the market impact of regional tensions and possible policy responses, the finance ministry has said. South Korea’s Financial Services Commission and Financial Services Supervisory Service has also said regulators can take pre-emptive measures to forestall a further market sell-off.

Jackson said the tensions did not change a positive outlook on Korea’s currency. Dips in the won’s value – which Jackson said is currently undervalued by between 10% and 20% – offer investors buying opportunities, he said. “South Korean assets already have political risk premia priced in while appreciation pressures on the Chinese yuan’s will strength the won.”

South Korea’s government could scrap capital inflow taxes in the event of sell-off in Korean assets, said Newton. Before today's incident, the government was poised to reinstate a 14% tax on interest income from treasury and central bank bonds and an initial 20% capital gains levy on their sale in the primary markets. The moves are intended to curb foreign inflows of capital to stem currency appreciation pressures and the risks associated with excess financial leverage.

South Korean markets last sold off on May 20 as regional tensions flared following an investigation which concluded that a North Korean torpedo had sunk South Korea’s ROKS Cheonan navy vessel in March. This led to a 9% drop in the Korean won against the US dollar in the days following the report.

Newton said it remains unclear whether Tuesday’s incident represents an attempt by the North Korean leadership to gain leverage over the international community or if the attack was undertaken by rogue military commander.

In recent weeks, rumours have surfaced North Korea is preparing a nuclear test while at the same time looking to return to the negotiating table with world powers over its nuclear program.

Related stories


Editor's Picks


In Focus

  1. AFRICA IN THE INTERNATIONAL BOND MARKETS: African sovereigns go mainstream as investors shift focus away from Russia

  2. KAZAKHSTAN: Kicking Kazakhstan back into gear - Nazarbayev tries again at transformation