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[Economic Opinion] Anticipating Another Triple-Double for 2019

A triple-double refers to the achievement of a double-digit number in certain categories of a game. The most common way to achieve a triple-double in a basketball game is through points, rebounds, and assists. Oscar Robertson in the 1960s and the incumbent Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunders are the only two players ever to average a triple-double during a season in the NBA. As a hallmark of success in the game, a triple-double is indeed as hard to achieve as is admired.

Analogous to a basketball game, the concept of a triple-double can be extended to a national economy striving for quality performance, especially in time of economic difficulties. Here, the triple categories would be the percentage rate of change in investment, exports, and inflows of foreign direct investment. Had it been the 1960s or 1970s, one of the three categories would have been the real GDP growth rate, but a double-digit real economic growth has become almost obsolete in Korea since the 1990s under normal situations.

2017 was indeed a remarkable year, achieving a triple-double record; investment grew 14.6 percent, exports 12.8 percent, and foreign direct investment 40.9 percent. Looking back at the last 18 years, 2017 was the one and only triple-double year. There were five double-double years: 2000, 2003, 2004, 2008, and 2010, but no triple-double year other than 2017. With such extraordinary performances, the real economic growth rate peaked at 3.1 percent that year.

It has been easy for the export growth rate to reach a double-digit level. Throughout the last 18 years since 2000, 10 cases recorded double-digit growth rates. But it seems very difficult to achieve a double-digit performance in the rate of growth in either foreign direct investment or facility investment. In fact, numerous years demonstrated not positive, but negative growth rates in those investments since 2000. In particular, domestic facility investment indicates grim statistics. As sluggish investment either from the inside or the outside being the true endemic problem of the Korean economy for the last two decades, all government policies must be directed toward tackling the malaises in investment to achieve a triple digit performance.

First, all of the regulations shackling free entrepreneurs should be dismantled right away. Regulatory sand-box policies should not be confined to the so-called new industries such as ICT, nor to the special industrial areas. The policies should be extended to all traditional industries which have long been withering and lackluster. Innovation is definitely expected in the new industries, but it can, more often than not, come from the traditional industries, too.

Second, government should trust the good-will of the corporate sector. Not just because they are creating most of the decent jobs and value-added for society, but as a crucial entity constantly supplying new technology and new inspiration to a dynamic community. It was always the corporate sector that developed new marketable products enhancing welfare and utility in society. It has been a constant engine of growth and prosperity for a lively economy. Government has neither the authority nor the legitimacy to hamper its freedom and creativity. In that regard, the government should ponder deeply upon how obstructive policy has been, and at the same time, why the decision on deregulation at the top political level has not been perfectly percolating down to the bottom floor.

Most politicians at the top level are very serious about the policy mandates because, above anything else, their re-election is at stake. But most of those in the middle or lower echelons, heuristically called the bureaucrats, are neither anxious nor interested about the critical deregulation issues, because nothing is at stake for themselves on the one hand, and all blame will be bestowed upon them if something goes wrong after deregulation. If innovation is so imperative for economic growth, then it must be given supreme priority and all other aspects give way to it. Conformity to the existing system and innovation are mutually exclusive arguments and cannot go hand-in-hand. If one is taken, the other should be forgone. Bureaucrats should be allowed a broad based disclaimer right regarding deregulatory actions.

In this regard, the 2019 policy direction recently issued by the Ministry of Economy and Finance is right on point. There, the ministry emphasized, above anything else, the prime importance of revitalizing corporate investment, which was put at the forefront. The government promised to remove intricate regulations and conflicts of interests blocking several mega projects. Also, the government pledges to help provide a vast amount of financial resources to SMEs for ICT related projects. The government plan also rightly stresses the importance of competitiveness in the export industries, including the two new frontier initiatives. But all of these government pledges are not new. Most of the agendas were included in last year’s policy directives for 2018. Amid the expectation of a more challenging environment than 2018, 2019 would require much more determination on the part of the government as well as the private sector to achieve a triple-double performance. As the triple-double record in 2017 was hardly expected to occur, a repeat of a triple-double is anxiously anticipated with some unheralded chain of events. Who knows?

By Professor Se Don Shin
Dean, Sookmyung Women’s University

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of KOTRA

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