One lesson that Korean corporations learned from the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis is that you need money set aside to survive a credit crunch. They have since steadily increased their cash holdings to build a buffer against unexpected financial shocks.
So when the global economy was thrown into turmoil in 2008 due to the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis, major Korean corporations were not affected as they had already accumulated enough retained earnings to avoid any cash crunch.
Yet they have gone too far in building cash buffers. Their cash pile has grown so large that lawmakers are considering levying taxes on it as a means of pushing them to increase spending.
According to data released by CEO Score, a market research firm, the combined amount of internal reserves held by the 82 listed affiliates of the top 10 chaebol groups reached 477 trillion won in June, up 44 percent from 331 trillion won in 2010. Their average ratio of retained earnings to capital rose from 1,376 percent to 1,668 percent during the period.
The surge in reserve assets has both positive and negative aspects. On the upside, it means a substantial improvement in the financial health of the companies and stronger capacity to finance new projects.
On the downside, the cash mountain suggests that the top corporations have been reluctant to channel their profits back into investment that increases productivity and create jobs, thus contributing to economic growth.
Companies cite several reasons for their reluctance to invest, including the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the global economy. They also point to the new regulatory constraints introduced by politicians in the name of economic democratization.
But the bigger reason is their failure to create new growth engines. In the past, they had aggressively invested in promising industrial areas that had been created by others. Now they have to create such areas themselves.
To provide new growth engines for the national economy, President Park Geun-hye presented her vision of a creative economy, which calls for integrating information-communication technology into existing industries. To realize her vision, the government has come up with an array of policy packages.
Yet these efforts are apparently not of much help to corporations in exploring new industrial sectors to fuel their future growth. In a recent poll of the nation’s major companies, about 70 percent of the respondents said they had no fresh investment projects planned for next year.
The absence of new growth engines is all the more worrisome as the profitability of domestic companies is on the decline. Data show that the combined operating profit of the top 10 chaebol groups’ listed affiliates totaled 36.3 trillion won during the first three quarters of this year, down 4.7 percent from the same period last year. Among the 10 groups, only SK and LG saw an improvement in their profitability.
Now, the government needs to strive to make the business environment more investor-friendly. More importantly, corporations should exercise their entrepreneurial spirit. They need to be more willing to take risks and build new industries based on creative ideas. If they just sit on their cash reserves, leaving them untapped, they will soon be wiped out by their more innovative foreign rivals.