August 24, 2022
SEOUL – The South Korean won weakened to 1,345.5 won per US dollar on Tuesday, marking a fresh 13-year low, despite a warning that authorities would rein in speculative trading seen as behind the depreciation.
The verbal warning, coming for a fourth time for the year, reflects growing volatility gripping the currency markets amid the persistent hawkish outlook on a US rate hike in September boosting the dollar’s safe-haven appeal.
The key psychological threshold of 1,300 won is considered a red flag for the broader economy, forcing the Finance Ministry and Bank of Korea to take action.
President Yoon Suk-yeol himself spoke of measures he would put in place to address such concerns Tuesday morning. “The currency devaluation is certainly worrisome and I will take necessary steps to manage the risks,” he told reporters as he walked into his office.
Yoon’s economic team faces what it calls a full-blown economic crisis, meaning it has to to not only keep the won stable in the face of global inflation, but also blunt the surge in prices at home while adjusting policy so growth momentum is not lost along the way.
“A strong dollar is unavoidable for some time globally, but still we need to send out a message that authorities will rein in speculation here,” an official with knowledge of the matter said, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Analysts said investors would have to contend with currency depreciation until the US Federal Reserve sheds light on how big a rate hike the central bank intends to back at its Sept. 20-21 meeting. Hints will likely emerge from a preceding meeting Friday in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as part of a three-day gathering that starts Thursday with central bankers and economists from around the world in attendance.
“From what I see, Chair Jerome Powell will still be hawkish at the meeting, because US consumer prices are still not at the levels the central bank says are good enough,” said Seo Sang-young, an analyst at Mirae Asset Securities.
US inflation decelerated in July on falling gasoline prices, climbing 8.5 percent from a year ago after a 9.1 percent rise in June — a sign some see as grounds for the Fed to dial back its rate increases. But the news attracted little attention from Fed officials.
Last week, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard — one of the earliest advocates for a strong response to inflation — said he was leaning toward a third rate hike of 75 basis points, after June and July increases. He noted he backs taking the Fed’s rate to a range of 3.75-4 percent by year-end.
San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly described a rate hike of either 50 or 75 basis points as reasonable, though he added more data on inflation and employment was needed to determine the exact pace of the hike at the Fed meeting a month later.
Fed tightening is expected to make it harder for policymakers in Seoul to deal with economic woes facing Asia’s fourth-largest economy, as investors flee for higher yields from the dollar and the economy fights higher energy import costs that offset gains in exports.
Customs data showed Monday imports grew at a faster pace than exports in the first 20 days of August, bringing the trade balance to an estimated $10.21 billion deficit. Crossing the $10 billion mark in the 20-day period of any month is a first since 2016, when the agency began compiling the data.
The August estimate puts the economy on track for a five-month streak of monthly trade deficits dating to April. But the latest trade gap does not mean Korean exporters are losing their competitive edge, according to the Finance Ministry. “Higher energy prices were the reason,” it says.
The depreciating won is a headache for households too, who may have to refinance their budget to respond to soaring food import costs. The latest central bank data released Tuesday showed food prices were what worried consumers the most in the price surge to come.
The priority is given to cooling prices, with the country’s economic chiefs, including the Bank of Korea governor, saying taming inflation requires a timely response to avoid utilizing extra resources later to achieve the same goal.
The central bank, which backed its single biggest rate hike of 50 basis points last month, is expected to lift borrowing costs by the usual 25 basis points Thursday, in the first of three board meetings left for the year.