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Asset managers face possible flak over Samsung merger

Asset management companies in South Korea may face criticism from clients for backing Samsung Group's controversial merger of two units last year, industry watchers said Thursday.

In an extraordinary shareholders' meeting in mid-July last year, all asset managers in the country supported the combination of then-Samsung C&T Corp. and Cheil Industries Inc. The merged entity was renamed Samsung C&T.

This combined image shows Samsung Group heir apparent Lee Jae-yong, who appeared for a parliamentary probe into a deepening political scandal at the National Assembly on Dec. 6, 2016, and the logos of Samsung's two merged units. (Yonhap)
This combined image shows Samsung Group heir apparent Lee Jae-yong, who appeared for a parliamentary probe into a deepening political scandal at the National Assembly on Dec. 6, 2016, and the logos of Samsung's two merged units. (Yonhap)

Defying strong opposition from minor and foreign investors, Samsung pressed ahead with the marriage of the two key affiliates, which cleared the way for heir apparent Lee Jae-yong to control the nation's top conglomerate during his father's hospitalization. His father Lee Kun-hee has been in the hospital since May 2014 after suffering a heart attack.

According to sources, asset management firms are concerned they may take a hit from allegations that the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae forced the National Pension Service (NPS) to support the merger.

"Asset management firms may not be exempt from criticism should the NPS come under flak for making a wrongful decision due to outside pressure," an industry source said.

The state pension operator's support was deemed crucial for the merger since it held an 11.21 percent stake in then-Samsung C&T and a 4.84 percent stake in Cheil Industries.

Samsung allegedly received the backing of the NPS in return for large donations and favors to Choi Soon-sil, President Park Geun-hye's longtime confidante at the center of a widening political scandal, and her daughter.

At that time, Korea Investment Management Co. held 2.85 percent of Samsung C&T, with other asset managers' stakes hovering around

0.1 percent.

Some analysts criticize asset management companies for failing to rationally judge the merger ratio of 0.35 of a Cheil share for 1 Samsung C&T share, which opponents argued was disadvantageous for Samsung C&T shareholders. Asset managers are also under fire for having paid excessive attention to the stance of Samsung Group and the state pension operator.

At a parliamentary probe into the political scandal on Tuesday, Samsung's Lee was grilled over the allegations of outside pressure, but he flatly denied it, saying the merger was intended to only benefit the companies.

A decades-old friend of President Park, Choi is accused of cashing in on her close ties to the president to coerce donations from conglomerates to two nonprofits and meddling in state affairs despite having no government position. She is also suspected of having pocketed some of the donations.

Pending a trial, Choi is in detention on charges of extortion, attempted fraud and other wrongdoing. Park faces impeachment over her alleged involvement in the scandal with lawmakers set to vote on Friday. (Yonhap)

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