Saving savings bank
Who let the fox guard the henhouse?
``The best way to rob a bank is to own one.” So reads the title of William K. Black’s book that describes the U.S. savings and loan fiasco in the 1980s. Exactly the same is happening in Korea three decades later.
Police arrested Kim Chan-kyong, CEO of Mirae Savings Bank, who was about to sneak into China through a west coast port Thursday. Kim is suspected of pocketing 20 billion won of company funds from Mirae, one of the four savings banks ordered to suspend their business for mismanagement. The 57-year-old banker is also accused of buying a 150 billion-won resort in China by embezzling clients’ deposits.
The case may be an extreme one but shows how the nation’s savings banks have been run by incompetents and fraudsters. Industry watchers suspect some political connections might have forced Kim to try to secretly leave the country.
That may not be a groundless doubt, given the triangular collusion of politicians, bureaucrats and bankers surrounding savings bank scandals.
The whole process is surprisingly similar to what occurred across the Pacific about 30 years ago. Policymakers helped to expand what started as small lending and deposit institutions named mutual credit funds, deregulated their business limits and jacked up deposit insurance to banks’ levels while failing to regulate their business to similar points. These banks invested idle money into high-return, high-risk project financing, while the regulators avoided fundamental restructuring, just transferring bad debts of poorly-run institutions to good ones through mergers and acquisitions.
Now that all these have no longer become sustainable because of sagging property markets, the financial authorities have been weeding out 20 of them using more than 20 billion won of bailout funds from taxpayers’ money. Officials say the streamlining of the industry is over for now, vowing to shift to constant monitoring.
Depositors doubt this, and with sufficient reason. It was only eight months ago when the regulators suspended the business of six savings banks in a second-phase streamlining, saying that there would be no more such measures. It is natural consumers raise questions of both the competency and integrity of the regulating agencies. If the real estate industry remains mired in the doldrums, there will be more shaky savings banks, which will desperately lobby politicians to avoid being designated as ailing institutions.
The Lee Myung-bak administration has not created the problem, but that does not mean it can pass providing a solution to its successor. President Lee should instruct a reopening of the investigation into suspected collusion and hold all those involved ― regulators who neglected their duty, politicians who lobbied for ailing savings banks and irresponsible and unethical managers. Then the policymakers ought to return the industry to where it started ― as mutual savings and lending institutions, not permitting their wayward expansion.
As always, left holding the bag are the general public as both depositors and taxpayers. Letting the savings banks out of the grip of this greedy, unethical bunch should also be one of the responsible leader’s jobs.