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Private Equity in South Korea – Ready for fame?

Words by:
February 16, 2023

South Korea is famous for many things – Samsung, K-Pop, Ban Ki-Moon – but not, perhaps, for private equity.

It should be.

Because in the last twenty years, private equity in the peninsula has undergone a radical and lucrative transformation. At the turn of the century when most of the world was focused on the Millennium Bug, the Bush-Gore Presidential race and The Matrix, South Korea was recovering from a severe economic slump. The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 had affected South Korea badly. GDP growth fell from 7.9% in 1996 to -5.1% in 1998. Interest rates rose from 6.7% to 10.3% over the same period and the South Korean government was forced to go to the IMF for help.

At this sorry point in South Korea’s economic history, overseas investors saw opportunities. Between 1998 and 2003, a succession of Korean financial institutions – Good Morning Securities, Korea First Bank, KorAm and Korea Exchange Bank – were snapped up by foreign investors seeking to benefit from the economic downturn. Foreign private equity firms are estimated to have invested over $6.6 billion in South Korea during this time and investors reaped the rewards with profits worth billions.

But not all Koreans took kindly to foreign buyouts of household Korean companies. Large-scale protests accompanied the takeover of Korea Exchange Bank and key figures associated with the deal were later imprisoned.

Today, private equity investment in South Korea tells a very different story. The country has embraced private equity on its own terms. Lessons from the Millennium takeovers and the Asian Financial Crisis convinced Korean lawmakers that changes to domestic financial regulations could counter foreign takeovers and support domestic economic recovery. Fundamental changes through the Capital Markets Law of 2005 enabled Korean investment funds to raise capital for investment other than for specific projects – a restriction which had previously curtailed private equity activity.

The benefits for private equity of regulatory change were swift. The number of Korean private equity funds increased from 15 in 2005 to 189 in 2011, with 70 out of the 85 investments in the Korean takeover market in 2011 led by domestic funds. Total private equity investment in South Korea also increased, starting at $3 billion in 2005 before rising to $17.6 billion in 2015 and almost $30 billion in 2021. Analysis by McKinsey in 2018 showed that annualised private equity returns stood at around 20% with an average holding period of just over 3 years. Not bad for an industry that didn’t exist twenty years ago.

But for UK investors there are further reasons to take note. The UK Government has set out its intentions to seek an enhanced trade deal with South Korea. This would build on the existing UK-South Korea Trade Agreement, which largely rolls-over the EU-South Korea Trade Agreement, and introduce new chapters on digital and investment. Outward stock of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from the UK in South Korea was £4.6 billion in 2020,  comprising 0.3% of total UK outward FDI. The value of outward UK FDI to South Korea has remained steady over the last decade standing at £4.2 billion in 2011 before peaking at £6.9 billion in 2017 but there is clearly room to grow further. On average in 2020, over 95% of Korean restrictions on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) were equity restrictions – limiting foreign ownership and foreign investment activity in the peninsula. Although this is not surprising given the reaction to foreign buyouts in South Korea twenty years ago, increasing market access for overseas investors is likely to be an important element of a new investment chapter for UK negotiators in an enhanced UK-South Korea FTA. FDI stock from South Korea in the UK by contrast has grown markedly in recent years from £900 million in 2011 to £3 billion in 2020 – around 0.2% of global inward UK FDI.

The prospects for the South Korean economy to the end of the decade look promising too. IMF predictions show steady growth in GDP of between 2% and 2.7% over the next five years to 2027, with inflation falling to 2% in 2025 – down from 5% in December – and remaining at that level until 2027. The Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi Badenoch, has said that a trade deal with South Korea would allow the UK to “expand our key exports in digital, business and financial services”. If the government in Seoul can be persuaded to open itself further to foreign investors, UK private equity firms will benefit from new and innovative partnerships, providing steady returns for investors.

And the strength of South Korea’s relations with UK investors will be one more thing the peninsula is famous for.

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