South Korea political scandal puts corporate decisions on ice

SEOUL/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Korea Inc is moving in slow-motion, mired by the country’s political crisis, with a vacuum in planning and decision making as corporate giants such as Samsung and Lotte delay traditional year-end management reshuffles, company insiders say.

The logo of Samsung Electronics is seen at its headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

Last week, the heads of nine of the biggest conglomerates, or chaebol, were subjected to an unprecedented 13-hour grilling by a parliamentary panel investigating the scandal that led to Friday’s vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye.

While no executives have been charged with wrongdoing, many have been questioned by investigators and the offices of the Samsung, Lotte and SK groups were raided.

“With no hint on when top management changes will be announced, what we are seeing right now is a chain reaction that slows down lots of things,” said an executive at a key Samsung Group unit that makes electronics components, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.

Between them, the nine groups have revenue of 910.5 trillion won ($780 billion), equivalent to more than half of South Korea’s GDP.

Executive promotions, an annual ritual at the big family-controlled conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s economy, typically set the stage for new initiatives in the coming year, with decision-making tailing off in the weeks beforehand.

With that period of uncertainty stretching on longer than usual, an employee at a Samsung affiliate said staff had been occupying themselves reading news reports and surfing the corporate intranet.

“There is a definite slowdown in day-to-day work as well, because companies are holding off on concrete expansionary plans or changes,” said the person, who declined to be named.

The scandal has also sown uncertainty about government policies and the economy, coming at an inopportune time for companies such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Hyundai Motor Co, which are looking to reverse sliding market share in core businesses.

Hyundai, which is bracing for its fourth consecutive year of annual profit decline, said it was also undecided on whether it would announce personnel changes in late December as usual.

“The mood is not great and our chairman had a very tough time at the parliamentary hearing,” said a Hyundai Motor Group executive who declined to be named. “It would be fortunate if I don’t get sacked in these difficult times.”

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Park has been accused of colluding with long-time friend Choi Soon-sil and an aide to pressure big businesses to contribute tens of millions of dollars to two foundations set up to back presidential initiatives.

Samsung Electronics, part of the conglomerate that donated 20.4 billion won ($17.5 million) to the two foundations - the most of any group - has seen delays in setting next year’s sales targets, a company source said, declining to elaborate.

The company has also yet to announce its yearly management reshuffle. Samsung traditionally announces executive changes in early December, with some investors expecting a major shake-up after it was forced to discontinue its fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 smartphone.

It declined to give a timeframe, or to comment on when it would announce annual personnel moves.

“There’s a lot of anxiety,” said an employee at Samsung Electronics’ chip division, who said employees were huddling over lunch to discuss rumors of changes that would normally have been completed by now.

“I am curious to know whether my current boss will stay, or I will be moving to another team or not.”

A Lotte Group spokesman said its annual reshuffle, which usually takes place in late December, was likely to be delayed to next year because of “various situations”.

“Our group companies are having more difficulty in setting up business plans than usual,” the spokesman said.


Friday’s impeachment vote means the country’s Constitutional Court has up to 180 days to uphold or overturn it, setting the stage for Park to be the country’s first democratically elected leader to be ejected from office.

Ratings agency Moody’s said on Monday that the impeachment increased the likelihood that no new policy changes would be implemented until a permanent replacement was in office, which would weigh on the economy as hiring and investment decisions are put off.

“The biggest fallout we can expect from this issue, economy-wise, is companies hesitating to invest,” a Bank of Korea official told Reuters, declining to be named.

Samsung, which usually announces its annual investment plan around late January, told Reuters in a statement that it was “currently in the process of making comprehensive plans for next year.”

In 2016, it earmarked a record 27 trillion won ($23 billion) of capital spending.

South Korea’ finance ministry said last week it was concerned that “domestic issues” may put more pressure on an economy that is grappling with record household debt and weak exports, as well as global uncertainties.

The Federation of Korean Industries, which represents big conglomerates, typically announces annual investment plans by the 30 biggest business groups in March, but an official there said it was not clear whether it would be able to keep to that schedule.

“The current crisis is similar to or worse than that of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis,” he said, also declining to be identified. “We are at a standstill.”

That has left employees “holding tight and trying to keep busy” said an official at another Samsung Electronics affiliate.

“Many executives eligible for promotion or other reshuffle prefer to stay low profile ... you don’t want to get unnecessary attention,” he said.

Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Joyce Lee; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson