In the last months of 1997, the value of the Korean currency lost over half its value against the dollar, and the ruling party was swept from power in presidential elections. One of the fundamental causes of this national economic crisis was the widespread failure of Korean companies to earn their cost of capital, which contributed to massive shareholder losses and calls for corporate governance reform. Among the worst performers, and hence the main targets of governance reform, were family-controlled Korean business groups known as chaebol. Besides pursuing growth and size at the expense of value, such groups were notorious for expropriating minority shareholders through “tunneling” activities and other means.
The reform measures introduced by the new administration were a mix of market-based solutions and government intervention. The government-engineered, large-scale swaps of business units among the largest chaebol—the so-called “big deals” that were designed to force each of the groups to identify and specialize in a core business—turned out to be failures, with serious unwanted side effects. At the same time, however, new laws and regulations designed to increase corporate transparency, oversight, and accountability have had clearly positive effects on Korean governance. Thanks to reductions in barriers to foreign ownership of Korean companies, such ownership had risen to about 37% at the end of 2006, up from just 13% ten years earlier. And in addition to the growing pressure for better governance from foreign investors, several newly formed Korean NGOs have pushed for increased transparency and accountability, particularly among the largest chaebol.
The best governance practices in Korea today can be seen mainly in three kinds of corporations: (1) newly privatized companies; (2) large corporations run by professional management; and (3) banks with substantial equity ownership in the hands of foreign investors. The improvements in governance achieved by such companies—notably, fuller disclosure, better alignment of managerial incentives with shareholder value, and more effective oversight by boards—have enabled many of them to meet the global standard. And the governance policies and procedures of POSCO, the first Korean company to list on the New York Stock Exchange—as well as the recent recipient of a large equity investment by Warren Buffett—are held up as a model of best practice.
At the other end of the Korean governance spectrum, however, there continue to be many large chaebol-affiliated or family-run companies that have resisted such reforms. And aided by the popular resistance to globalization, the lobbying efforts of such firms have succeeded not only in reducing the momentum of the Korean governance reform movement, but in reversing some of the previous gains. Most disturbing is the current push to allow American style anti-takeover devices, which, if successful, would weaken the disciplinary effect of the market for corporate control.