chapter in the history of the chaebols continues to develop
in exceedingly interesting ways.
As we have
been discussing on a regular basis at this site in recent
weeks, these massive, heavily diversified, internationally
famous, and family-run conglomerates – which have dominated
the South Korean economy since shortly after the Korean War,
raising the nation up from indigence to prosperity even as
its government moved gradually closer to real democracy –
have hit on challenging times. Once engines of growth, the
chaebols are now barriers to further growth, so large and
powerful that they’re capable of crushing, with little
effort, the development of new firms and stifling the spirit
As a result,
in South Korea there is hardly any way to make a
respectable career in business other than to find a job at
one of the chaebols. And however talented and motivated one
may be, there is no way to rise to the very top of one
of the chaebols unless one happens to have been born into
the right family. This state of affairs has led to growing
resentment toward the chaebols – a resentment intensified
by the corrupt ties between the chaebol dynasties and the
country’s political elites, and, perhaps most bizarre of
all, by the fact that the people who hold tight to the
reins of power in these conglomerates are not necessarily
the same people who own the lion’s share of their stock.
On the contrary, it is rare indeed for the stockholders in
the chaebols to have much say at all in their actual
As we’ve discussed here, and as Kim Jaewon noted in a recent article for Nikkei, South Korean Moon Jae-in, upon his inauguration in May 2017, promised major chaebol reform. To be sure, it is a tradition for newly installed South Korean presidents to vow chaebol reform. But Moon spoke so insistently about the matter that he persuaded a good many citizens of his country that he really meant to do something. As the weeks and months have gone by since he took power, however, fewer and fewer have looked upon his assurances with confidence; and, as the usual arrests for corruption have taken place, followed by the usual pardons for the chaebol executives involved and the usual prison terms for the politicians, once again cynicism about the chaebols has been on the upswing.
It is in this atmosphere that a few bold chaebol shareholders are finally standing up to the perverse power arrangement that they have quietly accepted for so long. These activist investors, observed Jaewon, “have scored minor victories at Samsung and Hyundai, while the parent of Korean Air Lines has been called to account by a domestic fund.” At the head of the list of these investors, wrote Jaewon, is the New York-based Elliott Management, the world’s largest activist fund, which has been campaigning “to force Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor to increase shareholder returns.”
by activist investors has already begun to bear fruit. In
early December, Samsung Electronics “retired 7% of its
common stock and 8.9% of its preferred stock worth 4.9
trillion won ($4.4 billion)” in an effort to provide
shareholders with greater benefits. Hyundai Motor recently
announced plans to “buy 2.8 million treasury shares worth
254.7 billion won by the end of February to boost its
stock price and shareholders’ value.” In December, it even
took the action – surprising within a South Korean context
– of “promoting several foreign executives to senior
roles, a first step toward the management diversification
long demanded by minority shareholders.”
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.