Regulator with heart
Assistant managing editor
Kim Seok-dong, chairman of the Financial Services Commission (FSC), has managed what none of his predecessors could, when he paved the path for Lone Star to exit Korea last week.
His predecessors may cite one reason or another for their failure to act promptly on the Texas-based private equity fund’s wish to sell its controlling stake in the Korea Exchange Bank (KEB).
Eight years ago, Lone Star was the only buyer for the troubled KEB and, with a little hyperbole, the government as good as begged the buy-and-sell financial entity to take over KEB.
If the Bank of Korea (BOK), which holds a 6.12 percent stake in KEB, had been more forthcoming, what ensued could have been avoided.
But the timid central bank pulled out all stops to avoid buying what is now one of the most lucrative institutions, traditionally serving as the main creditor and lender for large conglomerates.
It is hard to define whether the Lone Star saga is a tragedy, comedy, tragic-comedy or comic tragedy but it has one element or another of all. It is a comedy when considering the attempts by bureaucrats to wash their hands of it but contains tragic elements such as Byun Yang-ho’s legal problems.
Byun, a promising bureaucrat, led the way for Lone Star’s KEB takeover but later faced suspicions of allegedly being too chummy with the private equity firm. He was forced out of office and now heads a private equity fund himself after being legally exonerated.
The public is tired of arguments and counter-arguments stretching over the past eight years because Lone Star is walking away with estimated gains of 5 trillion won.
A sense of national resentment has been boiling over with the mere thought of Lone Star’s bounty being as great as the sum of each member of the Korean population numbering nearly 50 million paying 100,000 won.
Most have passed the stage of resentment and are entering one of reconciliation on the basis of a collective calmer perspective. In other words, taxes can be slapped on the proceedings.
Besides, we can afford to see the situation from Lone Star’s perspective ― they were the party that was invited to rescue KEB; they are treated like a criminal rather than receive thanks and above all they may have made a bigger profit if they had invested elsewhere.
Take a cool-headed look at the past eight years and a deep breath, and try to consider it as one very expensive piano lesson. The consolation is that you think that you can be like Lang Lang and play the piano for the rest of your life to earn money. If you come up short then you can hope that your work will be financially rewarded posthumously.
If all told, one ingredient that is key to having the Lone Star saga reach its denouement or critical mass has been missing ― one bureaucrat with a big heart.
That is the current FSC chairman.
Since taking office, he has repeatedly said that he would bring about the last chapter of the Lone Star issue.
Sometimes his repeated vows looked as if meant to convince himself above all others because of the chance of being beleaguered by opposing forces during his time in office ― the KEB union, politicians and civic groups. If they don’t succeed, he will likely have to take the stand in a parliamentary hearing after the government changeover.
Then the question is why he has done it, knowing the odds against him.
First, the correct answer is that it is in his nature.
Kim, who likes to call himself a man of finance for 30 years, was a mid-level finance and economy official when the 1997-98 currency crisis hit Korea.
It is said that he was in charge of foreign currency policy but never given a chance to report directly to the finance minister, who was from the economic planning board (EPB). The ministry was the result of the combination of EPB and Treasury that was ordered by the then-President Kim Young-sam.
Only when Yoon Jeung-hyun, President Lee Myung-bak’s former finance minister and Kim’s boss, insisted Kang listen to Kim, was he allowed to report one-on-one, face-to-face with Kang.
Kang delegated his power regarding foreign reserve-related policy.
He asked for a daily limit of $100 million in the defense of the Korean currency but President Kim authorized him to use half that so he could use $50 million every day. We know the rest of the story ― despite his efforts Korea was put under IMF regency and underwent a draconian shakeup from its foundations.
So that explains why he has a heart.
Then, the next question is whether he has brains.
In the lead-up to last Friday’s ruling, he endowed himself with the authority to reject a figure for a discount in the amount Hana Financial has agreed to pay Lone Star for KEB’s controlling stake. Lone Star knows it and will demand any Hana proposal carry Kim’s blessing.
In other words, what is to follow after last week’s FSC ruling is a high-stake poker game between Lone Star CEO John Grayken and Kim Seok-dong through the proxy of Hana Chairman Kim Seung-yu.