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Is South Korea the new safe haven for Indian Swiss bank account holders?

The South Korean cryptocurrency craze might have induced Indians to shift money from traditional havens

Sai Manish  |  New Delhi 

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With Switzerland gearing up to share with India the information of Indian bank account holders, there seems to have been a massive exodus of Indian money to in the past year. Bank of International Standards (BIS) data show a 900 per cent spike in non-bank deposits in South Korean banks during 2018.

Non-bank deposits include corporate and individual deposits and exclude inter-bank transactions. These were the same deposits that were quoted by former finance minister in 2018 to defend the government over Indians’ rising deposits in Swiss banks.

BIS data show that non-bank loans and deposits of Indian residents in stood at $904 million at the end of 2018. The previous year, Indians had held just $1 million in South Korean banks. Since the Modi government came to power for the first term in 2014, Indians barely held about $4 million in that country. By comparison, such deposits by Indians across the world was $9.5 billion in 2018 — $1 billion more than a year before. This astronomical rise seems to coincide with a surge in non-bank deposits in from across the world. Such deposits in South Korea from individuals across the world almost doubled in 2018 — from $19 billion a year before to $37 billion.

Even as South Korea has seen a stupendous surge in money held by Indians as non-bank deposits, there has been a gradual outflow of money from Swiss bank accounts and certain other tax havens traditionally used for stashing wealth to evade taxation. According to BIS, Indians held just about $85 million in non-bank deposits in Swiss banks in 2018, compared with $347 million in 2014. Swiss bank deposits fell every year during the tenure of the first Modi government.

The initial trend of an exodus from Switzerland and an influx into Hong Kong’s banks also seems to be cooling off. Indians’ deposits in Hong Kong touched a five-year high of $1.4 billion in 2015 but fell to almost $600 million in 2018.

There was also a significant fall in such deposits by Indians in other tax havens like Isle of Man and Jersey. The trend of post-recession increase in non-bank deposits by Indians in the United Kingdom (UK), meanwhile, continues to show an upward trend. In 2018, it touched a five-year high of $2.7 billion, the highest among all nations.

So, what explains the astonishing spike of deposits in South Korea? It coincides with the cryptocurrency boom of 2017 in that country. Reports had suggested at the time that South Koreans’ craze for cryptocurrencies had reached a crescendo by December 2017, with a third of that country’s workforce invested in cryptocurrencies like bitcoins and ethereum. While the spike in deposits gets reflected in bank accounts only in the first quarter of 2018, the money would have started flowing when the craze was at its peak in the latter half of 2017.

South Korean banks were even offering virtual-currency accounts to clients. However, by 2018, the cryptocurrency boom went bust, with South Korea’s Financial Services Commission (FSC) launching investigations against banks that provided virtual-currency accounts to handle cryptocurrencies. Surprisingly, despite the crypto story going bust in South Korea, Indians continued to deposit more money there. From January to April 2018, Indians’ deposits in South Korean banks swelled from $1 million to over $600 million. From April to July, this increased to $800 million. After remaining constant in the third quarter, there was another surge of $100 million from September to December. A Reuters report dated January 8, 2018, had quoted Choi Jong-Ku, the chairman of South Korea’s FSC, as saying: “Virtual currency is currently unable to function as a means of payment and it is being used for illegal purposes like money laundering, scams and fraudulent investor operations.” NON-BANK DEPOSITS OF INDIANS ABROAD

2014 $6.7 billion
2015 $8.9 billion
2016 $7.6 billion
2017 $8.5 billion
2018 $9.5 billion

First Published: Fri, July 12 2019. 10:03 IST
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