Pesek on Asia: Republic of Samsung
Good morning. Here's my take on some of the stories driving the debate in politics, finance and social issues across Asia today:
The currency risk surrounding Samsung.
South Korea is often called the "Republic of Samsung." The conglomerate's role in the economy is such that you can work at Samsung, live in one of its apartment buildings in Seoul’s glitzy Gangnam district, pay for your Galaxy phone with a Samsung credit card, invest in your future with its financial-services units, get your health checked at one of its medical centers, blow off steam watching Samsung-owned sports teams, use its travel agencies and even buy a latte at a Starbucks outlet owned by a retailer run by the nephew of Samsung Chairman Lee Kun Hee. Now that the weak yen is hitting Samsung's profits on a consistent basis, will Asia's currency wars resume? The risk is increasing with Samsung's red ink.
Canary in China's coal mine.
Surely this isn't a metaphor China would encourage, but it could prove to be an apt one as authorities scrutinize credit risks in the coal-mining industry. The big focus right now is on whether a $496 million trust product distributed by Industrial & Commercial Bank of China will default -- or more to the point, whether it will be allowed to. A coal mining company -- since gone bust -- originally borrowed those funds. Now regulators worry that some of its peers could also be under pressure, raising the scary prospect of a wider financial crisis.
India's latest economic worry: election spending.
The fiscal positions of Asian economies know few bigger risks than election cycles. India is Exhibit A as the two main parties -- Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party -- do battle with a third ahead of a national contest due in May. The sudden emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party has only intensified the usual subsidies arms race that precedes the polls. Now Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram is jawboning the central bank to worry more about supporting growth than combating inflation. Let's just hope India's economy comes out of this voting cycle alive.
Abe really blows it at Davos.
As more headlines roll in about Shinzo Abe's World Economic Forum keynote, a first for a Japanese leader, the clearer it is that he badly blew a perfect moment to focus on his economic reforms. The world is anxious to know whether the deregulatory pledges behind Abenomics are real or hype. And what did he do in front of the ideal audience to detail his supply-side strategies and garner global enthusiasm for Japan Inc.? Get lost in the weeds of World War II, upsetting China anew and prompting the Davos set to wonder what in the world Tokyo is thinking.
Asia likes Iran's coming-out party.
President Hassan Rouhani had a considerably better turn at Davos, opening the door a crack wider to the mainstream global economy. The first Iranian leader in a decade to visit the Davos forum invited oil companies to invest in his country as a nuclear accord with world powers triggers the lifting of some sanctions. This is a "trust, but verify" moment that calls to mind Ronald Reagan's adage about his dealings with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Japan, for one, is abuzz, for example, with Renault chief Carlos Ghosn saying that once more sanctions disappear, Iran's new-car market could expand to anywhere between 1 million and 1.5 million units. It's early days for Rouhani, but East Asia likes what it's hearing so far.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)