For many people in South Korea, the arrest, trial, conviction, and imprisonment last year of Lee Jae-young – that country’s richest man and the de facto head of Samsung, the country’s largest business – signaled the start of a bright new era. After decades of corruption in the chaebols, the powerful family-run conglomerates that have dominated the postwar South Korean economy, the ouster last year of President Park Geun-hye and her replacement by Moon Jae-in, who promised that the traditionally well-connected leaders of these firms would no longer operate with impunity, seemed indeed to represent radical and long hoped-for change.
Yet, as we discussed on Tuesday, all hopes for revolutionary reform were crushed last month when a High Court judge abruptly ordered Lee (known in the West as Jay Y. Lee) freed from prison.
Lee, according to Bloomberg News, “appeared stunned.” So, reported the Wall Street Journal, were “some South Korean lawmakers and legal experts.” The South Korean public was stunned, too. And angry. Street protests ensued. Moon had promised change, but this was business as usual. Over the decades, one chaebol honcho after another had been tried on corruption charges only to be found not guilty, or convicted and then pardoned, or – as happened with Lee’s father in 2008 – given a suspended sentence. Meanwhile, as the New York Times has noted, South Korean courts have “routinely sentenced lesser-known white-collar criminals to far longer terms for lesser offenses.”
Here it was all over again. “The ‘Republic of Samsung’ lives on,” griped Professor Kwon Young-june of Kyung Hee University. The judge’s decision, complained Park Yong-jin, a member of the National Assembly, only “confirmed once again that Samsung is above the law and the court.”
Indeed. The High Court’s ruling – which came only days before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea – is absurd on its face. Among the items of evidence that senior judge Cheong Hyung-sik chose to drop down the memory hole was a set of 39 handwrittennotebooks in which an economic adviser to President Park recorded specifics about bribes paid to Park by Lee. Other exhibits in the trial included documentation of exchanges between Park to Lee that made clear the nature of the quid-pro-quo between them.
Many commentators had been arguing that South Korea is in the process of changing its stripes; nobody can seriously make that argument now. Lee is a criminal for whom prosecutors sought a sentence of 12 years in prison: that’s how serious they considered his transgressions to be. The prosecutors demonstrated that Lee had committed embezzlement, illegally hidden assets overseas, and lied to the parliament under oath. They proved definitively that he had paid bribes in return for government support for a merger that, as the Financial Times put it, “was crucial for Mr. Lee to cement his hold on the organisation, but was widely criticised for not benefiting shareholders.” As one politician observed, by way of underscoring the absurdity of the High Court’s ruling, Judge Cheong appeared to expect the world to believe that Lee had handed over a fortune to President Park in return for absolutely nothing whatsoever.
So it stands, then. For a brief shining moment there, it looked as though South Korea had experienced a new birth of justice and equal treatment under the law. Alas, Lee’s release shows that under Moon, the old rules remain in place.
In the wake of the March 29 dissolution of Venezuela’s National Assembly, an act that was widely condemned as a coup by President Nicolás Maduro, the economy of that poor, socialism-ravaged country has continued to circle the drain even as opponents of Maduro have taken to the streets day by day to demand their nation back, shouting “No more dictatorship!” Hundreds of thousands of protesters have filled the streets of Caracas and other cities; on Wednesday of last week, which saw the country’s largest protests in years, over 300 protesters were arrested, and pro-Maduro cops, gangsters, and soldiers have caused several deaths. (As of last Friday, the number of fatalities had risen to at least twenty.) Increasing, the capital has resembled a battle zone, with protesters setting up “burning barricades in several neighborhoods” and the military patrolling the night streets in “light-armored vehicles.”
Maduro himself, who has rejected the idea that the dissolution of the legislature constituted a coup, has said that, on the contrary, the protests against him – which in any free country, of course, would be protected by the right of assembly – amounted to a coup attempt. Vice President Tarek El Aissami has called Maduro’s opponents “terrorist leaders” and accused their followers of “fascist violence.” Another recent Maduro move was barring Henrique Capriles, the top opposition leader, whom Maduro has called “trash,” from running for public office.
Late last week, engineering student David Marval, one of the protesters in Caracas, told Bloomberg News: “Everyone is asking what the plan is….For me, you have to paralyze the entire city.” Informed observers ventured that “Maduro’s grip on power is weakening.” At a press conference, opposition legislator Freddy Guevara said: “Twenty days of resistance and we feel newly born.” Raquel Belfort toldTime Magazine: “This is the moment….People are sick of this….we’ve touched rock bottom. I think if we take to the streets every day we’ll end this government.”
Yet in an April 21 article for The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry suggested that an end to Maduro’s tyranny is not yet in sight. Venezuela, Gobry lamented, “cannot wake up from its socialist nightmare.” Maduro, he maintained “increasingly looks like a ‘Bolivarian’ version of Vladimir Putin, holding power through corrupt patronage, fear, and the smothering of alternative voices and power centers.”
Gobry served up a welter of chilling statistics about Venezuela’s “rotting” economy: “The economy shrank by 18 percent last year, with unemployment at 25 percent, and inflation slated to be 750 percent this year and 2,000 percent the next.” The very real human toll of this socialist disaster is reflected in the fact that during the past year, “74 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of nearly 20 pounds each.” Also, “children are suffering from malnourishment for the first time in the country’s modern history” and “hospitals are running out of even basic drugs.” On April 20, the Wall Street Journal reported that many Venezuelans are, quite simply, too hungry to join in the protests.
Among the recent casualties of the economic free-fall was an announcement on that same date that General Motors, in reaction to a government seizure of one of its factories, was withdrawing entirely from the country, where it has thousands of employees. Oh, and let’s not forget that Caracas is now “the murder capital of the world.” All this in a country with extraordinary human and natural resources that was once, hard as it may now be to believe, on the verge of having a First World economy.
Things are moving fast in South Korea. Early last week we caught up with developments in that country, where a massive scandal is roiling the chaebols (i.e. Samsung, Hyundai, and the other conglomerates that are the cornerstones of the economy) and is threatening to bring down President Park Geun-hye – who stands accused of helping her longtime chum Choi Soon-sil shake the chaebols down to the tune of some $69 million.
Since we ran those pieces, there’s been a major new development. Last Wednesday, prosecutors raided Samsung’s headquarters in the Gangnam district of Seoul, the offices of the national pension service, and the office of Hong Wan-sun, who until earlier this year was chief investment officer at the pension service. Last year, as Jonathan Cheng and Eun-Young Jeong wrotein the Wall Street Journal, the pension fund “cast a decisive vote in favor of a merger of two Samsung affiliates” – namely, Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T – “that strengthened the grip of vice chairman and third-generation heir Lee Jae-yong on smartphone maker Samsung Electronics Co., the crown jewel of the business empire.” The raids were reportedly part of a probe of that merger. One detail overlooked by the Journal, but emphasized by one South Korean news source, was that this was the third raid on Samsung in a month – an indication that prosecutors had “already made significant progress in their investigation.” The same source indicated that this time around the raid focused largely on the office of Choi Ji-sung, Samsung’s Future Strategy czar.
As the Journal‘s reporters noted, all this comes at a tough time for Samsung, which alone accounts for 17% of the South Korean economy. The discovery that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone could overheat and explode in a life-threatening conflagration led to two full recalls, cost over $5 billion, and caused the firm enormous embarrassment, leading to what may be long-lasting brand damage.
The ultimate impact of this scandal, however, may be even more explosive than the Galaxy Note 7. As Bloomberg News observedin the wake of the Wednesday raids, it’s “raising fresh questions about decades of cozy ties between the nation’s big conglomerates and those in power.” While one president after another (including Park) has promised to limit the chaebols’ influence, each of those presidents has continued to play the same old game, exchanging favors, breaks, perks, etc., for cash on the barrel head. So far, it’s mostly been Park’s reputation that has suffered: once a popular leader, she’s now got an approval rating in the single digits. But as the South Korean public watches the country’s most powerful businessmen being paraded into police interrogation rooms like small-time crooks, and sees prosecutors raiding the offices of the nation’s largest and most prestigious company as if it were a Mafia operation, the chaebols – whose reputations have already been on the skids for years – are bound to lose even more of their luster.
The only thing that’s sure here is that this story is just beginning to get underway. As the details of chaebol corruption continue to be investigated, uncovered, analyzed, and publicized, we’ll continue to monitor developments.
To an extraordinary extent, the Brazilian investment bank BTG Pactual – described by Dan Horchjan of the New York Times as one of the rare Latin American firms of its kind that rival the top Wall Street and European banks – owes its existence, and its years of spectacular success, to a single individual: its self-made founder and CEO, André Esteves. As people in his line of work go, he’s been an unusually prominent figure in Brazil. “More than any other financier,” Horchjan wrote recently, Esteves “was the face of Brazil’s global ambitions during the country’s recent, short-lived boom – in a hurry to grow and unafraid to compete against anyone, anywhere.” Esteves, whom Bloomberg has called the “golden boy” of Brazilian banking, used to say that the letters BTG in the name of his firm stood for “better than Goldman.”
To be sure, the company has had its share of controversies. In 2007, Esteves was convicted of insider trading. In 2013, BTG Pactual partner Charles Rosier was found guilty in the largest insider-trading case in French history. Other accusations of questionable conduct have been made by high-profile observers but not acted upon. In 2006, for example, Esteves sold BTG Pactual’s predecessor, named simply Pactual, to UBS, the Swiss financial-services company, for $2.6 billion (becoming Brazil’s youngest self-made billionaire), only to buy it back three years later for a smaller sum and combining it with his new firm, BTG, to create BTG Pactual. More recently, Esteves and a BTG Pactual director, Huw Jenkins, were sued in a Hong Kong court for $20 million for making “fraudulent misrepresentations” to secure a deal. Three times since 1999, BTG Pactual has been taken to court by Brazilian authorities for shifting money around to mask profits and thus shirk taxes.
But all of this is now mere background – perhaps even just a series of footnotes. We talked yesterday about the arrest and conviction of Latin America’s #1 construction contractor, Marcelo Odebrecht, as part of Operation Car Wash, the massive probe into corruption surrounding Brazil’s state-owned oil firm, Petrobras. After his arrest last June, Odebracht tried to slip a note to his lawyers asking them to destroy e-mails that implicated Esteves. The note found its way into the wrong hands, so that Odebrecht inadvertently ended up fingering Esteves. Esteves’s name was also mentioned in a recorded conversation in which suspects in Operation Car Wash – notably Delcidio do Amaral, the top-ranking Senator in the Workers’ Party – discussed plans to pay a potentially unfriendly witness, Nestor Cervero, the former head of Petrobras’s international division, to leave the country. And police found a note suggesting that BTG Pactual had bribed a congressmen to the tune of millions of dollars. On November 25, Esteves was arrested – and so was Amaral, who became the first sitting legislator to be swept up as a result of the Petrobras probe.
In a January report on his downfall, the Times‘s Horchjan highlighted “its apparent senselessness.” He quoted analyst Luis Miguel Santacreu as saying that BTG Pactual’s deals with Petrobras and the Brazilian government “were relatively small and had nothing to do with the bank’s core business, which was very profitable….They didn’t need any of these deals to keep on growing.” Felipe Monteiro, a French professor of strategy, made the same point in a comment to Bloomberg: “He epitomizes the idea of a private, successful, entrepreneurial generation of Brazilian bankers,” and so his involvement in “the most classic type of old politics is somehow strange.” It’s especially strange given that BTG Pactual actually lost money on its government deals even as it was turning tidy profits on its core, non-state-related business.
As Marcelo Odebrecht’s ruin sent the Brazilian construction sector tumbling, so the destruction of Esteves’s career shook the country’s financial sector to its roots. Now BTG Pactual’s shares are worth half of what they were. Its bonds are considered junk.
Another month, another new low for Kyle Bass, the favorite hedge-funder of Argentine autocrats.
First, a quick recap. Bass, who founded his Dallas-based fund, Hayman Capital Management, in 2006, made his fortune – and international headlines – by correctly predicting the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. For a while there, he was a superstar. He was M. Night Shayamalan in 2001, coming out of nowhere to get nominated for both his script and direction of The Sixth Sense. Observers jumped to the conclusion that Bass was some kind of genius who could do no wrong.
But time went on.
And time has not been kind to Kyle Bass.
The magic touch – if he ever had it – is long gone. Just as Shayamalan has made bad movie after bad movie, Bass has made bad call after bad call.
And he’s done it in full view of the market-following public. The guy seems never to turn down an invitation to go on TV and pontificate – proffering so-called “analysis” that invariably serves his own bottom line.
In addition to making bad calls, he’s made unsavory alliances. While pretty much everyone else in the business thinks that the economically illiterate Argentinian despot Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the worst thing that ever happened to her country’s economy, Bass can’t stop singing the woman’s praises. Last year, her country defaulted on its sovereign debt for the second time in thirteen years – an action at once indefensible and irrational. But, as we’ve seen, Bass defended it and rationalized it anyway, sounding so outrageously out of touch with reality that, as the New York Post put it, he sounded more like Argentina’s leftist economy minister Axel Kicillof than a U.S. hedge-fund manager.
If Bass came off like one of the hyper-socialist Kirchner’s lackeys and minions, that should be no surprise – because he is one of her lackeys and minions. The BBC has said he has a good relationship with her. That’s putting it mildly: Bass has consistently championed her preposterously irresponsible economic policies and has delicately ignored the cartoonish degree to which she and her breathtakingly amoral cronies have ripped off their own people.
And he’s gone even further than that: when New York Judge Thomas Griesa ruled that Argentina couldn’t just shell out to creditors who’d agreed to settle for reduced amounts, but also had to pay creditors – including Paul Singer of Elliott Management – who insisted on full payment, Bass took Kirchner’s side, calling Singer & co. “immoral” for, as he put it, “holding poor countries as hostages” and “holding up 42 million people from progress.” As we’ve said before, what’s really holding up progress in Argentina are Kirchner and her staggeringly incompetent and corrupt flunkies, whose economic illiteracy and limitless avarice have sent poverty levels sky high in a once affluent nation.
The question is: why? Why is Bass such a Buenos Aires bootlicker? Why is his nose a bright salmon pink from rubbing it up against the walls of the Casa Rosada? What kinds of secret, unscrupulous deals does he have – or want to have – with the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours Kirchner dynasty?
Bass’s shady ties with Kirchner and her crew aren’t his only ethical lapse since his fifteen minutes of glory. This is, for example, the guy who, in order to make good on his investment in General Motors, went on TV to try to shift the blame for fatalities caused by non-deploying airbags and faulty power steering in GM cars – problems that the auto giant knew about and failed to act on – onto the dead victims themselves, charging (disgustingly) that they’d either been drunk or failed to wear seatbelts.
Then there’s his business ties to the late Chris (American Sniper) Kyle, whose widow, Taya, is now embroiled in a messy lawsuit with one of Bass’s subordinates at Hayman, whom she’s accused of all kinds of unethical behavior. (Imagine!)
And this is also, note well, the guy who, as we’ve reported, came up a year or so ago with a ploy so vile that both houses of Congress are now working overtime – on a bipartisan basis – to close up the loophole that makes it possible.
The scheme is as simple as it is loathsome: Bass – in collusion with one Erich Spangenberg, known as “the world’s most notorious patent troll” – picks out certain pharmaceutical firms, short-sells their stocks, then challenges one or more of their patents via a front organization, the Coalition for Affordable Drugs, that he set up precisely for this purpose. The inevitable result: the stocks go down, Bass rakes in a few million quick simoleons, and the pharma companies’ prices go up while their motive to fund medical research goes down – thus causing palpable harm to the millions of people who depend on those firms’ products to ameliorate their suffering, relieve their symptoms, or prolong (or even save) their lives.
But why care about the sick and infirm when you’re in a position to turn a buck?
When Bass first got called on this sleazy dodge, he insisted he was doing it for a noble reason: bust patents and competition will drive drug prices down. On close examination, his explanation didn’t really make sense – and it didn’t fool anybody. “There’s nothing in this man’s history,” pointed out James C. Greenwood, a pharma industry leader, “to suggest he has any interest in lowering health-care costs.” Scott McKeown, an intellectual-property expert, dismissed Bass’s claim that he’s actually trying to help patients. Bass, he said, was “simply hoping to spook financial markets to his benefit.” Nobody disagrees.
So transparent was his pretense of altruism, in fact, that Bass has dropped it and switched to another defense. In a response to a filing against him by Celgene, the pharma firm that’s been his biggest target, Bass acknowledged he was motivated by a lust for profit – but quickly added that pharmaceutical companies, too, are driven by financial self-interest. So what, he asked, is the difference?
Well, some people do see a difference, and they’re out to stop him. As we’ve noted, a government agency, the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB), is considering sanctioning Bass for abusing the system with his patent challenges. Also – get this – Celgene has charged Bass and Spangenberg with extortion. Spangenberg, apparently, sent Celgene drafts of patent-challenging petitions, saying, accordingto Bloomberg News, that “he’d file them unless given cash.”
Some observers might wonder why Bass, who for fifteen minutes there was the Wunderkind of the hedge-fund industry, would be engaged in such grubby hijinks. Why would a guy who’s flown so high and cashed in so handsomely sink so low in order to further line his already well-stuffed pockets? An August 13 article in Barron’s helps clear up that question. We already knew that Bass had lost his fabled magic touch. But it turns out things are even worse than we imagined.
Jim McTague tells the story: “Bass has had a dismal time of it recently….Suddenly, the former luminary can’t seem to get anything right.” While it’s hard “to know exactly how Bass’ funds are doing because he keeps his fund’s actual performance metrics close to the vest,” news reports say he “lost somewhere around 30% in 2014, the mirror opposite of the industry’s best-performing hedge fund managers.”
Thirty percent! No further questions, Your Honor.
McTague quotes a recent article in which Bass himself admitted to having had “a tough year.” “It’s nice to win all of the time,” Bass said. “When you are not winning and everyone else is, it makes life difficult.”
No wonder he’s pulling this chintzy pharma con and sucking up to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, that despotic queen of the pampas!
According to McTague, Bass’s two current preoccupations are oil (everyone else to the contrary, he’s counting on prices to rise within a year) and Argentina (where, in McTague’s words, Bass continues to be “bullish where others are heading for the exits”).
Bass, reports McTague, refuses to talk about his and Spangenberg’s tacky patent ruse. Meanwhile, the latest news from Capitol Hill is that bills triggered by Bass’s activities have easily cleared both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, with legislators hoping that by the end of this month a law will be on the books that “cut[s] the legs from under this particular Bass strategy.”
Once that happens, what’s on deck for Bass? What squalid swamp will he wade into next? What sordid small-time con will he cook up? We don’t hold his stock-picking powers in particularly high regard – not anymore, at least – but we’re bubbling over with confidence that this shameless bottom-feeder has a cornucopia of uniquely unethical make-a-buck stratagems left in him.
And, of course, if all else fails, he’ll always have Buenos Aires.
UPDATE, August 27: Only hours after this post went up, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board denied Bass’s first two patent challenges. The PTAB’s decision “sets a worrying precedent for Bass,” wrote Business Insider, which also noted this very illuminating response by Bass: “It should be axiomatic that people do not undertake socially valuable activity for free.” In Bass’s world, it’s all about the money.