Chaebol progress?

 

The current chapter in the history of the chaebols continues to develop in exceedingly interesting ways.

Hyundai headquarters, Seoul

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 of entrepreneurship.

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

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 management.

Moon Jae-in

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.

Lee Kung-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics

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.”

Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo

This campaign 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.”

Digging up Samsung’s dirt

samsung-headquarters
Samsung headquarters

The probe into corruption at Samsung and the Blue House – South Korea’s presidential palace – entered a new stage on Wednesday, with investigators racing to get to the bottom of last year’s shady merger between Samsung C&T and another Samsung affiliate, Cheil Industries.

A quick summary of what we already know: last year, Samsung donated $20 million to two entities, the Mir Foundation and K-Sports Foundation, that are linked to Choi Soon-sil, an intimate of President Park Geun-hye. Samsung also funneled sizable amounts of cash to Choi and her family through a German corporation she controls and even underwrote her teenage daughter’s pricey equestrian activities.

choi_soon_sil_afp640
Choi Soon-sil

Why exactly did they fork over all this dough to Choi & co.? The working theory, in three words: quid pro quo. Try to follow this reaction pathway: Samsung bigwigs are believed to have bribed Choi to lean on her BFF, President Park, to order the National Pension Service – a major Samsung stockholder – to approve of the C&T/Chiel merger. The pension execs, as it happens, did indeed end up voting for the merger, even though their analysts had urged them to give it a thumbs-down.

lee-jae-yong
Lee Jae-yong

In short, the guardians of South Korea’s retirement funds didn’t do what was best for retirees or for fellow C&T and Cheil stockholders (who, recognizing the merger as unfavorable to their interests, fiercely opposed the merger). They did what was best for the powers that be at Samsung, period. Especially Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-yong.

park-geun-hye-getty-2
President Park Geun-hye

At least that’s where the available evidence – largely acquired during a previous round of prosecutorial raids – seems to point. Now two investigative teams, one of them led by special independent counsel Park Young-soo, are intensifying the probe. On Wednesday, seeking further evidence, Park’s team – which has 70 days (with a 30-day extension if necessary) to complete its work – confiscated documents and hard drives at about ten locations, including the National Pension Service’s asset management office, the headquarters of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and the homes of several Samsung executives.

chung
Chung Yoo-rah

That’s not all. The independent counsel has also secured an arrest warrant for Chung Yoo-rah, Choi’s horse-happy daughter, now 19. Since Chung is believed to be in Germany, the counsel has asked German officials to extradite her, has requested her German credit-card and phone records,  and has arranged for the cancellation of her passport. The investigators are even scrutinizing Chung’s high-school record, which turns out to have been faked. (The national educational department has already revoked her diploma.)

Meanwhile Lee – who, since his father, Lee Kung-hee, suffered a heart attack in May 2014, has been Samsung’s de facto top dog, and hence South Korea’s most powerful businessperson – has been barred from leaving the country. Earlier this month, the younger Lee testified at a parliamentary hearing that he didn’t know Choi and that Samsung’s payouts to her and her organizations were not bribes. According to one source, the independent counsel’s main goal is to find out whether or not that’s true.

samsungcar
A car that was reportedly set on fire by an exploding Samsung Galaxy 7 phone

The whole scandal is, of course, a huge blow to Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate and the ultimate symbol of the nation’s postwar economic success. And it’s happening, note well, at a time when Samsung is still smarting from its exploding-phone fiasco.

So start the countdown: seventy days. For our part, we can’t wait to see what Park Young-soo and his colleagues dig up.