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Korea antitrust chief criticizes Samsung Group’s ownership structure

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Samsung Group is facing a fresh criticism about its ownership after the country’s antitrust chief on Thursday referred South Korea’s biggest conglomerate as unsustainable.

Reuters reports that the country’s Fair Trade Commission chief Kim Sang-jo lambasted the group’s circular shareholdings between Samsung Electronics, Samsung Life Insurance, and Samsung C&T companies. According to the critics, the family of Samsung heir Jay Y. Lee was enabled by the structure to retain control of the company’s conglomerate with minimum investments, especially crown jewel Samsung Electronics.

“The clear fact is, the current ownership and control structure of Samsung Group, which goes from Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee to Samsung C&T to Samsung Life Insurance to Samsung Electronics, is not sustainable,” Kim said.

This is not the first time that Samsung Group has faced criticism due to ownership structure, the most popular one which came from Hedge Fund Elliott Management, a US activist, proposed in 2016 that Samsung Electronics should split into two to enable easier valuation of the company’s assets. The company rejected the proposal after a “thorough review” by its invited external advisers. However, Samsung Electronics accepted part of the proposal from the fund by highlighting plans to cancel over $35 billion of its existing treasury shares by this year.

Samsung Group Criticzed Hyun Suk Kim

Image: Hyun Suk Kim, CEO, Samsung Electronics

Kim disclosed that he is advising Jay Y. Lee to consider making a new decision on the ownership structure. He also said that Yoon Boo-Keun, Vice Chairman of Samsung Electronics, who was there in the meeting, said that the company will consider the advice.

There was no comment by a Samsung Electronics spokesman at the meeting. And not only Kim has questioned the group’s ownership structure lately.

South Korea’s top financial regulator on Wednesday said that Samsung Life Insurance must look out for ways to reduce the risk of clustering its assets in one place, including spreading some or possibly all the stake by Samsung Life in Samsung Electronics.

“Lessening the risk of concentrated assets is key to securing financial stability, which is what we are interested in,” said the Financial Services Commission CEO, Choi Jong-Ku. “If there are any concerns about retaining management control (of Samsung Electronics) we are saying, look for ways to keep it while lessening the risk.”

Bloomberg last month acknowledged that Samsung was planning to simplify its ownership structure this month. According to the sources, the adjustment will respond to rising controversy over the company’s ruling which favors the Lee family over minority shareholders.

It also states that two Samsung affiliates will be selling off their roughly $1 billion. But that the restructuring will depend on board voting and also on the market conditions will determine when the sales would be made. According to Bloomberg sources, the sale would weaken Lee Jae-Yong's position as Samsung Electronics vice chairman.

According to Reuters, Samsung Life Insurance which owns about 8% of Samsung Electronics, valued about $340 billion in the market may be on the verge of cross-shareholding structure.

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