A chaebol (/ˈtʃeɪbɒl/, Korean: 재벌, [tɕɛ̝bʌl]; from chae "wealth or property" + bol "faction or clan" – also written with the same Chinese characters 財閥 as Zaibatsu) is a South Korean form of business conglomerate. They are typically global multinationals and own numerous international enterprises, controlled by a chairman with power over all the operations. The term is often used in a context similar to that of the English word "conglomerate". The term was first used in 1984. There are several dozen large Korean family-controlled corporate groups which fall under this definition.
- Management Structure
- Workplace Culture
- Emergence and inflation
- Internal market transactions accountability
- Too big to fail
- Monopolistic Behavior
- Government Ties Abuse of Power
- IMF Agreement
- Government Led Reforms and 2008 Crisis
- Chaebol by revenue
The chaebol have also played a significant role in South Korean politics. In 1988, a member of a chaebol family, Chung Mong-joon, president of Hyundai Heavy Industries, successfully ran for the National Assembly of South Korea. Other business leaders also were chosen to be members of the National Assembly through proportional representation. Since 2000, Hyundai has played a role in the thawing of North Korean and South Korean relations.
South Korea's economy was small and predominantly agricultural well into the mid-20th century. However, the policies of President Park Chung Hee spurred rapid industrialization by promoting large businesses, following his seizure of power in 1961. The First Five Year Economic Plan by the government set industrial policy toward new investment, and the chaebol were to be guaranteed loans from the banking sector. The chaebol played a key role in developing new industries, markets, and export production, helping place South Korea as one of the Four Asian Tigers.
Although South Korea's major industrial programs did not begin until the early 1960s, the origins of the country's entrepreneurial elite were found in the political economy of the 1950s. Very few Koreans had owned or managed larger corporations during the Japanese colonial period. After the departure of the Japanese in 1945, some Korean businessmen obtained the assets of some of the Japanese firms, a number of which grew into the chaebol of the 1990s.
The companies, as well as certain other firms that were formed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, had close links with Syngman Rhee's First Republic, which lasted from 1948 to 1960. It was alleged that many of these companies received special treatment from the government in return for kickbacks and other payments.
When the military took over the government in 1961, its leaders announced that they would eradicate the corruption that had plagued the Rhee administration and eliminate "injustice" from society. Some leading industrialists were arrested and charged with corruption, but the new government realized that it would need the help of entrepreneurs if the government's ambitious plans to modernize the economy were to be fulfilled. A compromise was reached, under which many of the accused corporate leaders paid fines to the government. Subsequently, there was increased cooperation between corporate and government leaders in modernizing the economy.
Government-chaebol cooperation was essential to the subsequent economic growth and astounding successes that began in the early 1960s. Driven by the urgent need to turn the economy away from consumer goods and light industries toward heavy, chemical, and import-substitution industries, political leaders and government planners relied on the ideas and cooperation of the chaebol leaders. The government provided the blueprints for industrial expansion; the chaebol realized the plans. However, the chaebol-led industrialization accelerated the monopolistic and oligopolistic concentration of capital and economically profitable activities in the hands of a limited number of conglomerates.
Park used the chaebol as a means towards economic growth. Exports were encouraged, reversing Rhee's policy of reliance on imports. Performance quotas were established.
The chaebol were able to grow because of two factors: foreign loans and special favors. Access to foreign technology also was critical to the growth of the chaebol through the 1980s. Under the guise of "guided capitalism," the government selected companies to undertake projects and channeled funds from foreign loans. The government guaranteed repayment should a company be unable to repay its foreign creditors. Additional loans were made available from domestic banks. In the late 1980s, the chaebol dominated the industrial sector and were especially prevalent in manufacturing, trading, and heavy industries.
The tremendous growth that the chaebol experienced, beginning in the early 1960s, was closely tied to the expansion of South Korean exports. Growth resulted from the production of a diversity of goods rather than just one or two products. Innovation and the willingness to develop new product lines were critical. In the 1950s and early 1960s, chaebol concentrated on wigs and textiles; by the mid-1970s and 1980s, heavy, defense, and chemical industries had become predominant. While these activities were important in the early 1990s, real growth was occurring in the electronics and high-technology industries. The chaebol also were responsible for turning the trade deficit in 1985 to a trade surplus in 1986. The current account balance, however, fell from more than US$14 billion in 1988 to US$5 billion in 1989.
The chaebol continued their explosive growth in export markets in the 1980s. By the late 1980s, the chaebol had become financially independent and secure, thereby eliminating the need for further government-sponsored credit and assistance.
By the 1990s, South Korea was one of the largest newly industrialized countries and boasted a standard of living comparable to industrialized countries.
President Kim Young-sam began to challenge the chaebol, but it was not until the 1997 Asian financial crisis that the weaknesses of the system were widely understood. Of the 30 largest chaebol, 11 collapsed between July 1997 and June 1999. Initially, the crisis was caused by sharp drop in the value of the currency and aside from immediate cash flow concerns for paying foreign debts, the lower cost ultimately helped the stronger chaebol expand their brands to Western markets, but the simultaneous decline of nearby export markets in Southeast Asia, which had been fueling growth made the large debts incurred, for what was now overcapacity, be fatal to many of the chaebol. The remaining chaebol also became far more specialized in their focus. For example, with a population ranked at the 26th in the world, before the crisis, the country had seven major automobile manufacturers. Afterward, only two major manufacturers remained intact though two additional continued, in a smaller capacity, under General Motors and Renault. The chaebol debts were not only to state industrial banks but also to independent banks and their own financial services subsidiaries. The scale of the loan defaults meant that banks could neither foreclose nor write off bad loans without themselves collapsing, so the failure to service these debts quickly caused a systemic banking crises, and South Korea turned to the IMF for assistance. The most spectacular example came in mid-1999, with the collapse of the Daewoo Group, which had some US$80 billion in unpaid debt. At the time, it was the largest corporate bankruptcy in history.
Investigations also exposed widespread corruption in the chaebol, particularly fraudulent accounting and bribery.
Still, South Korea recovered quickly from the crisis, and most of blame for the economic problems was shifted to the IMF. The remaining chaebol have grown substantially since the crisis, but they have maintained far lower debt levels.
In 2014, the largest chaebol, Samsung, comprised about 17% of the South Korean economy and held roughly US$17 billion in cash. However recent financial statements of these chaebols actually show that chaebols are slowly losing power over either international competition or internal disruptions from newly emerging startups. Net profit/income of South Korea's top conglomerates has decreased from 2012 to 2015. Not only did their profits stop increasing, but certain chaebols such as LG, have been making losses and losing talents.
Some chaebol are one large corporation while others have broken up into loosely connected groups of separate companies sharing a common name. Even in the latter case, each is almost always owned, controlled, or managed by the same family group.
South Korea's chaebol are often compared with Japan's keiretsu business groupings, the successors to the pre-war zaibatsu. While the "chaebol" are similar to the "zaibatsu" (the words are cognates, from the same hanja or kanji), some major differences have evolved between chaebol and keiretsu:
The chaebol model is heavily reliant on a complex system of interlocking ownership. The owner of the chaebol, with the help of family members, family-owned charity and senior managers from subsidiaries, has to control only three of four public companies, who themselves control other companies that control subsidiaries. A good example of this practice would be the owner of Doosan, who controlled more than 20 subsidiaries with only a minor participation in about 5 companies.
The chairmen in charge of the chaebol possess a small portion of equity in the companies under the large umbrella of the chaebol but are very powerful in making decisions and have the ability to control all management. For example, Samsung owns 0.5% in the group's listed firms. That demonstrates a lack in the rule of law. The method that allows this type of possession is called cross-holding, which is a horizontal and vertical structure that enhances the control of the chairman.
The typical culture at one of these conglomerates is highly paternalistic in nature. Much of the environment is defined by the chairman who acts as a "fatherly-figure" to his subordinates. This can be traced back to the infusion of Neo-Confucian values that permeate Korean society. A chaebol head's demeanor towards his employee can be described as "loving" while maintaining "sternness and a sense of responsibility". Workers commit to long hours, most notably on weekends and holidays, in order to appease their superiors. Company outings and drinking sessions tend to be compulsory as to foster a sense of family and belonging among employees. Employers believe that enhancing a common bond between them would translate into prosperity and productivity for the company. Other practices that would be uncommon for Western workplaces to engage in include gift-giving to employees and arranging dates for workers in search of relationships or marriage. The chaebol are notoriously hierarchical. As such, it is unusual for an individual to challenge or question the decision-making of his or her boss. This dynamic adds to the culture that orients itself around whoever is in charge;but can lead to undesirable circumstances. For example, the Asiana flight 214 crash led critics to speculate that cultural factors prevented a pilot on board from aborting the low-speed landing and thus straying from his superior's commands. Promotion is rarely merit based. Rather, it is through order of age and time served to the conglomerate. This is reflected by the fact that most executives are far older than their employees. If a worker does not attain an executive or high-management role by the age of fifty, he or she is commonly forced into resignation. Again, this is attributable to the age-hierarchy dynamics in Korean Confucian culture. Loyalty to the firm is heavily emphasized at the chaebol. Signs of this is evident in standard recruiting process, where newly acquired employees undergo intense initiations. Activities in these tests include training camps and singing company unique songs that reiterate the production goals of the firm.
Even though the chaebol system helped bring about rapid growth and helped Korea launch itself on the international stage, it caused negative impacts on the Korean economy:
Emergence and inflation
The origins of the chaebol system in South Korea come as consequence of the Korean War. The war resulted in much destruction and halted industrial production, which led the government to print money to pay for the war and meet requirements of the United Nations forces for the Korean currency, all of which caused mass inflation. This inflation caused many commodity prices to double every six months.
The government had to react and so devised a plan in providing strong financial incentives to private companies between the 1960s and 1970s. It consisted on the government choosing select family businesses to distribute the incentives (imported raw materials, commodities, bank loans). The impact was immediate, and most of the businesses flourished rapidly. The protection of infant companies allowed them to develop because of the highly regulated market, which prevented foreign companies from entering. Many companies that were not in the circle of businesses saw the system as flawed and corrupted. While these problems have never erupted into the sort of "crony capitalism" problems common in Southeast Asia, corruption scandals have periodically visited all of the chaebol.
Internal market transactions accountability
Because the government gave out incentives to help businesses, it had a lot of control over them. However, there was no way to ensure the businesses would use the incentives in an effective and efficient manner. In other words, there was no external monitoring system to monitor the chaebol and ensure that they were efficient in the allocation of resources. All businesses undertake internal market transactions, which constitute "purchase and sale of intermediate inputs, the provision and receipt of loan collaterals, and the provision and receipt of payment guarantees among member firms in a business group". There is the question of efficiency, especially in production and management. Therefore, the system of chaebol was not very transparent. Behind the scenes, businesses were provided with subsidiary financing and intragroup transactions. This allowed them easy loans to cover for their deficits, and prior to the 1997 crisis, huge debts had accumlated, many of which were hidden. That gave the illusion to the world that the system was flourishing into the 1990s.
"Too big to fail"
During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, bankers feared that the chaebol would go bankrupt so they allowed these businesses to roll over their loans each time they were unable to repay their debts. They allowed that because there was a common misconception that these businesses were "too big to fail". Many did not believe that the chaebol were capable of collapsing and that the more they borrowed, the safer they were.
However, the theory was proven wrong when many businesses collapsed during the crisis. Since they were linked through debt guarantees, many of the companies fell in a chain reaction. The focus on capacity expansion created debt that was manageable when the economy was growing. However, when the economy stalled, debt-to-equity ratios became a huge problem.
Since the crisis, the chaebol now have less debt so they are less vulnerable to similar crises, as was demonstrated in the 2008 crisis, but the growth of the fewer remaining chaebol has meant they each occupy a larger portion of the economy.
The protectionist policies and preferable government treatment granted the chaebol the ability to exhibit monopolistic behavior. The absence of a market free of intervention meant that "true competition" became a rarity in South Korea. Especially in the era prior to the IMF crisis, the only products available to the Korean people were those made by the chaebol. Therefore the social fabric of the country lacked an entrepreneurship culture. Massive market concentration exists as is evident from the fact that 80% of the country's GDP is derived from the chaebol. The largest of the group, Samsung, exports 20% of South Korea's goods and services alone. Although no-longer financially supported by the government, these firms have attained economies of scale on such a massive level that it is extremely difficult for a start-up or small medium enterprise (SME) to surmount the high barriers to entry. A majority of these smaller companies end up being acquired by the chaebol, only increasing their size and economic dominance. In recent years the trend of selling internationally has been seen among aspiring Korean entrepreneurs.
To this day, the chaebol maintain dominance across all industries. Reductions in tariffs and removal of trade regulations designed to protect Korean conglomerates has led to increasing competition from abroad. However, among domestic firms the chaebol have kept their market share intact. Most notably, Apple's entry into the smartphone market pressured rival Samsung into diversifying its revenue streams from overseas. All but 3 of the top 50 firms listed on the Korean Stock Exchange are designated as chaebol. Consequently, the chaebol have more bargaining power and oftentimes takes pricing action that squeezes both suppliers and consumers. Typically the firms down the supply chain fail to increase their profit margins enough to expand and thus never see growth. Collusion among the chaebol is commonplace. Price-fixing acts mean consumers expect to pay an inflated value for most goods and services. For instance, in 2012 Samsung and LG Electronics were fined for colluding to raise prices for home appliances.
Government Ties & Abuse of Power
Since the inception of the chaebol, the government has been closely involved in its affairs. Many of the reforms enacted over the years, especially those under President Kim Dae-Jung, have cracked down on kickbacks and preferential treatment. Moreover the state is no longer a majority shareholder of any chaebol. But their sheer size and wealth has been used to gain influence. For the most part, the government sees the function of the chaebol as crucial to the Korean economy. When President Lee Myung-Bak took office, he pardoned Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-Hee for tax evasion. President Lee then proceeded to champion pro-chaebol deals, including a nuclear energy contract with the city of Abu Dhabi, and loosened laws preventing the conglomerates from owning financial services companies. Samsung's leader is not the only chaebol chairman to be excused from a crime conviction. Choi Tae-Won of SK Group, Chung Mong-Koo of Hyundai, Kim Seung-Youn of Hanwha, and Shin Dong-Bin of Lotte Group, are a few examples of chairmen who have been charged, convicted, or are currently serving a prison sentence for white collar crime. Accusations include, bribery, tax evasion, accounting fraud, embezzlement, and violent crime. Typically chairmen of the chaebol are pardoned. August 15 is recognized in South Korea as Liberation Day. This is when the president forgives the chairmen for their infractions in order to ensure they remain in power of their companies. In the rare case that an executive is sentenced to prison, as the CEOs of SK and CJ group were, it is typically a relatively light punishment of up to 4 years depending on the charge.
Collusion between members of the chaebol and the government granted preferential statuses to the companies. The chaebol would funnel bribes to politicians and bureaucrats through slush funds and illegal donations. This could help maintain the government's position of power, allowing them to secure contracts for major government projects and provide favorable treatment to the donor firm. Examples of this type of corruption were widespread in the years leading up to the 1997 financial crisis. Many of the firms who benefited from this relationship were too indebted, had poor corporate governance, and were inefficient. There was a huge inflow of capital and bending of regulation in favor of these problematic firms. Hanbo Group, formerly South Korea's second largest steel-maker, is a good example of this. In the 1990s the company paid for special arrangements with high-ranking politicians so that it could secure contracts for large government projects over its competitors. Hanbo went bankrupt in the 1997 after defaulting on debt payments along with other governance issues. Numerous chaebol companies had similar private agreements with the government in this fashion. It would be most common in companies dealing with heavy industries or projects that involved government procurement and urban planning. In the past, most successful political elections were won with the support of the chaebol. Each time a new administration or regime stepped in, it would gear its policy platform towards chaebol revitalization. This was under the claim that in order to be a competitive economy more power must be given to the chaebol. In recent years, the leading political parties of South Korea have reversed their pro-large corporate stance to one of economic diversification.
Under Kim Dae-Jung and in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial crisis, many reforms were made to the chaebol. Most of these changes pertained to corporate structure, transparency in financial reporting, corporate governance, and debt stabilization. In 1997, the IMF provided a bailout loan of $60 billion conditional on revision. Distressed financial institutions were to be closed down and those that were deemed viable were to be restructured and recapitalized by the levels it set forth. This affected the chaebol because it severely restricted its easy access to financing that led to over leveraged balance sheets. Lenient accounting practices and disclosure rules were to be strengthened and standardized for international practice. Hence, transparency was increased to what would be expected from a public company. The chaebol agreed to be subject to independent auditors and were obligated to provide consolidated financial statements on a regular basis.
Government-Led Reforms and 2008 Crisis
Kim Dae-Jung enacted what is known as the "Five Principles of Corporate Governance". These were the enhancement of management transparency, strengthening owner-manager accountability, elimination of cross-debt guarantees among chaebol affiliates, improvement of capital structures, and consolidation of core business areas. In his plans, debt to equity ratios were to be below 200%. Subsidiaries of chaebol that were debt-laden or on the verge of bankruptcy were instructed to be either liquidated, sold, or put up for merger. Each chaebol-holding group had to break up its subsidiaries and operations so that they were more manageable. By the end of 1997, each had an average of 26.8 subsidiaries. It was hoped that if there were fewer activities, the quality of the remaining businesses would see improvement. Many unrelated branches to their core competencies were swiftly shed. If any of the conglomerates failed to meet the conditions by the set deadlines, strict sanctions would be passed against them. During the 2008 Financial crisis, many of these reforms ensured the quick recovery of the chaebol. Having had exposure to a massive recession before, the companies learned to cope better than those in foreign countries. With significantly healthier balance sheets and higher cash reserves, the chaebol were able to avoid any liquidity issues. Moreover, with fewer subsidiaries they were less exposed to the full scope of the crisis and thus helped keep the Korean economy afloat.
President Roh Moo Hyun pushed for even more extensive reform. His administration passed stringent regulations on fraudulent accounting, stock manipulation, and irregular wealth succession. The chaebol were forced to improve objectivity on their board of directors. Rather than having the decision-makers be insiders, affiliates, or family members, the chaebol were expected to hold representation who reflected the interests of investors- especially minority shareholders who gained a significant amount of rights. As a result, it became easier for the chaebol to raise capital through equity rather than riskier debt. This is because the new transparency laws and restructuring boosted investor confidence from abroad.
Laws were passed to limit the expansion of chaebol:
Formally, the Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC; 공정거래위원회;公正去來委員會) announces a limited chaebol list every year as size of industrial assets (not including financial companies).
Chaebol with limited assurance (상호출자제한기업집단;相互出資制限企業集團)
Chaebol by revenue
The following charts list chaebol in order by different categories.