South Korean bank chief's suicide sheds light on crisis

Financial officials agree that the banks' credit practices have been too loose
Image caption Who's to blame for bad financial shape of South Korea's savings banks?

About lunchtime during the last bright days of the Korean summer, Jeong Gu-haeng, the president of one of South Korea's biggest savings banks, jumped from his sixth floor office window, killing himself.

As he jumped, prosecutors were inside the building, seizing documents from the bank's headquarters.

They were investigating whether his Jeil 2 Savings Bank had mishandled loans given out to creditors.

The death of the bank's president - splashed over the front pages of newspapers here - refocused attention on a widening crisis among the country's savings banks.

Jeil 2 was one of seven banks to be suspended last month after financial regulators found that they all had too little capital stored against risky loans.

They have been given 45 days to correct the situation or face being sold.

It was the second round of suspensions to hit Korea's savings banks.

Nine others were suspended earlier this year, and several others have narrowly avoided it.

The current investigation - into seven of the suspended banks - is looking at whether major stakeholders and chief executives misused the company's capital to finance personal projects or those of their close contacts.

But the question of why so many of Korea's savings banks were in such bad financial shape to begin with, goes much deeper.

Risky loans

A large part of the answer lies in the forest of concrete on the outskirts of Seoul's city centre.

Kilometre after kilometre of grey-beige tower blocks, rising high into the sky, have been built to house the capital's burgeoning workforce.

Until recently, real estate was a good investment here.

Prices were rising, people kept buying, and construction firms were keen to keep building.

But after the global financial crisis three years ago, demand began to fall - and with it, prices. And that left builders, and their backers, exposed.

Dr Jeong Dae hee, an associate fellow at the Korean Development Institute, says that savings banks were on the front line of the downturn in the construction industry, because they provide many of the bridging loans which get projects started, often before there are any real assets.

When builders start a construction project, he says: "They often don't have the money to do it, so they go to savings banks and ask for loans.

"But they actually don't have the land or even permission to build the apartments..

"So they make some plans, and the savings banks look at the plans, and if the plans aren't too weird, they give them the money."

As the loans became riskier, he says, the banks' interest rates got higher - meaning that when demand began to fall it was harder than ever for builders to honour their debts.

Blame game

Financial officials agree that the banks' credit practices have been too loose. And that discovery has led the finger of blame to swing in the direction of the country's financial regulators.

Dr Jeong believes that Korea's main financial enforcement agency, the Financial Supervisory Service, or FSS (which takes its cue from the Financial Services Commission, or FSC), was unable to act strictly enough in its regular audits because it was under political pressure not to scare the market.

Image caption Savings banks were on the front line of the downturn in the construction industry

And also, he says, because many of the banks' senior employees were former FSS officials.

Allegations that the relationship between financial regulators and the savings banks was too cosy are widely accepted - even by regulators themselves.

One financial official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says: "The FSS has been parachuting in their retirees as auditors of the savings banks, so their juniors [who were still working in the FSS] couldn't go through a very rigorous audit."

In Korea, the sense of professional hierarchy and respect for those in senior positions is acute.

Confronting your boss is almost unheard of.

To inspect a bank which now employs a former senior colleague as auditor would put many Koreans in a difficult position.

"To some extent, we accept it," the official says.

But he also believes that the banks' "lack of risk management skills and business scope" was more to blame.

Wider impact?

But if the proper regulation and good business practices were lacking in Korea's savings banks, what about the rest of its financial industry? And what about the impact of the suspensions on the wider economy?

Dr Jeong says commercial banks are unlikely to face the same problems, because they have different financing to savings banks, and have many more assets.

Savings banks act as a kind of safety net for commercial banks, he says.

They are the first stage in the financing process, and so weed out the worst performers.

And Choo Kyungho, the vice-chairman of Korea's policy regulator, the Financial Services Commission, says there's little to worry about financially.

"There are two sides to this," he says.

"From the political-social standpoint, it's a big issue with many concerns. From a purely financial point of view, this issue is very small.

"The total assets of savings banks are less than 3% of the total financial market, so there's no chance this can escalate."

Dr Jeong agrees there's little chance of the savings banks affecting the wider economy. And the risk is made even smaller by an insurance fund that he believes will more than cover any losses.

But politically it has been tricky, even so.

The public have been shocked to learn of the 16 suspensions.

And with national elections due here next year, politicians have been queuing up to demand reform.

Mr Choo says it's not expecting any more suspensions this year, and the FSC has already put forward its proposals to improve the system - though some accuse it, and its enforcer the FSS, of refusing reform themselves.

As Dr Jeong points out, the real problems in this case aren't bad loans at all - but the trickier issues of possible illegality and lack of regulation.

"If the problem of the savings banks is just non-performing loans," he says, "then it's going to be much easier to fix this."

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