Samsung heir apologizes over corruption scandal

Lee Jae-yong, vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, was jailed for five years in 2017 for bribery, embezzlement and other offenses in connection with the scandal that brought down South Korean president Park Geun-hye. (Reuters)
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Updated 06 May 2020

Samsung heir apologizes over corruption scandal

  • ‘I will make sure that there will be no more controversy over the succession of management’
  • ‘I will never take any actions that go against the law’

SEOUL: The heir to the Samsung empire bowed in apology Wednesday for company misconduct including a controversial plan for him to ascend to the leadership of the world’s largest smartphone maker.
Lee Jae-yong is vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics and was jailed for five years in 2017 for bribery, embezzlement and other offenses in connection with the scandal that brought down South Korean president Park Geun-hye.
The 51-year-old was released a year later on appeal but is currently undergoing a retrial.
“Our technology and products are being hailed as first-class but the public gaze toward Samsung still remains harsh,” Lee said. “This is my fault. I apologize.”
Lee bowed three times before flashing cameras at a Samsung Electronics office in Seoul, where reporters sat apart under coronavirus distancing rules.
He will not allow his children to succeed him at the firm, he said in steady tones, swallowing occasionally.
“I will make sure that there will be no more controversy over the succession of management,” Lee said, adding: “I will never take any actions that go against the law.”
Wednesday’s apology came at the request of Samsung’s compliance committee, which oversees the firm’s transparency in its corporate dealings.
Lee has effectively been at the helm of the sprawling Samsung group since his father and group chairman Lee Kun-hee was left bedridden by a heart attack in 2014.
The court case centered on millions of dollars the Samsung group paid Park’s secret confidante Choi Soon-sil, allegedly for government favors including ensuring a smooth transition for Lee to succeed his ailing father.
The scandal highlighted shady connections between big business and politics in South Korea, with the ousted president and her friend accused of taking bribes from corporate bigwigs in exchange for preferential treatment.
Samsung Electronics is the flagship subsidiary of the group, which is by far the biggest of the family-controlled conglomerates, or chaebols, that dominate business in the world’s 12th-largest economy.
Its overall turnover is equivalent to a fifth of the national gross domestic product and it is crucial to South Korea’s economic health.
Chairman Lee Kun-hee is listed as South Korea’s richest man — and the world’s 65th — by Bloomberg Billionaires, with a fortune estimated at $15.7 billion, while Lee Jae-yong has a separate listing of his own, and a net worth of $5.7 billion.
In March, the Samsung compliance committee — which was set up in response to a court order — said many “disgraceful” incidents involving the Samsung Group were linked to an alleged succession scheme for Lee and advised him to apologize publicly.
It also recommended that Lee address Samsung’s previous “no labor union” policy.
For almost 50 years Samsung successfully avoided the unionization of its workers — sometimes adopting ferocious tactics according to critics — until last November.
“I sincerely apologize to everyone who has been hurt by issues involving Samsung’s labor union policy,” Lee said.
The company will guarantee workers’ rights and act in accordance with employment regulations, he added.
Samsung reported a slight fall in first quarter net profits last month at 4.88 trillion won ($4 billion), citing impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the firm — which saw operations suspended at 11 overseas assembly lines — warned of further falls to come as consumer demand is “significantly” hit by the disease.


Gold rush at Turkish bazaar a test of trust for lowly lira

Updated 48 min 45 sec ago

Gold rush at Turkish bazaar a test of trust for lowly lira

  • As precious metal prices soar, Turks rush to buy amid economic uncertainty and a volatile currency

ISTANBUL: Hasan Ayhan followed his wife’s instructions last week and took their savings to buy gold at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar as Turks scooped up bullion worth $7 billion in a just a fortnight.

With memories of a currency crisis which rocked Turkey’s economy only two years ago fresh in his mind, the retired police officer was among those playing it safe as he queued in the city’s sprawling market, where a screen showed the gold price rise by one Turkish lira ($0.1366) in just 10 minutes.

“I think it is the best investment right now so I converted my dollars to buy gold,” the 57-year-old said. “I might withdraw my lira and buy gold with it too, but I am scared to go to the bank right now because of coronavirus.”

The day after Ayhan bought his gold on Aug. 6, the lira hit a historic low and remains skittish, laying bare concerns that Turkey’s reserves have been badly depleted by market interventions, which are showing signs of fizzling out.

Turks traditionally use gold for savings and there may be 5,000 tons of it “under mattresses,” with more added after the recent buying spree, Mehmet Ali Yildirimturk, deputy head of an Istanbul gold shops association, said.

Although bullion has never been more expensive, vendors at the Grand Bazaar said almost no one was selling their gold jewelry. There are only buyers.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Currency touched record lows in three volatile weeks.
  • Local holdings of hard currencies at all-time high.
  • All are buyers at Grand Bazaar, despite expensive gold.

“I’ve been chatting with hundreds of people who are thinking about selling their cars or houses to invest in gold,” vendor Gunay Gunes said.

In the last three weeks, as selling gripped the lira, local holdings of hard assets such as dollars and gold jumped $15 billion to a record of nearly $220 billion.

There is no evidence suggesting people are about to pull savings from banks, and this week the lira has hovered around 7.3 versus the dollar, although it remains among the worst emerging-market performers this year.

Demand has eased since Turks withdrew some $2 billion in hard foreign cash from their banks during a March-May period in which a lockdown was imposed and the lira hit its last low. Analysts say that if Ankara cannot boost confidence in the currency, which has fallen almost 20 percent this year, import-heavy Turkey risks inflation and even a balance of payments crisis that will worsen fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

Given foreign investors now have only a small stake in Turkish assets, they say the key for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is convincing Turks to stop turning to the perceived stability of dollars and gold.

The central bank and treasury did not immediately comment on the dollarization trend or any policy response.

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, said on Wednesday the lira’s competitiveness was more important than exchange rate volatility.

The central bank has effectively borrowed on local dollar liquidity to fuel foreign exchange market interventions, which are meant to stabilize the lira.

Through Turkish state banks, which together are “short” foreign exchange by $12 billion, the central bank has sold over $110 billion since last year. In turn, the bank’s gross FX buffer has fallen by nearly half this year to below $47 billion, its lowest in years.

The central bank has said its reserves naturally fluctuate in stressful periods, and the treasury says the bank intervenes at times to stabilize the currency.

But ratings agencies say Ankara should take decisive steps, such as an interest rate hike, to rebuild reserves and restore confidence. Otherwise, rising current account deficits and possible debt defaults could tarnish a solid reputation for meeting foreign obligations.

“Locals don’t want to keep Turkish lira, they’ve been dollarizing and buying gold. Turks have hardly ever done that,” said Shamaila Khan, New York-based head of EM debt strategy at AllianceBernstein, which manages $600 billion. “That is why you need proactive policies because if you get to that stage where locals are unwilling to keep their money in the bank then you’re heading to a balance of payments crisis. That’s when the alarm bells will start ringing.” 

Some banks imposed fees on withdrawals this week, while the central bank has curbed cheap credit channels it opened to ease the coronavirus fallout. Yet while lira deposits now earn more than the 8.25 percent policy rate, their real return is negative with inflation at 11.8 percent.

Traders say such backdoor tightening needs to reach 11.25 percent to stabilize the lira, which has nearly halved in value since early 2018.

Market expectations have risen for a formal rate hike that economists say would reinforce central bank independence, even while it could slow economic recovery.

Politics may stand in the way.Erdogan, whose popularity has dipped this year, holds the view that high rates cause inflation, and sacked the last central bank governor for disobedience.

He said on Monday he hoped market rates would fall further.

But firms such as System Denim, which imports materials and makes clothes for companies like Zara and Diesel, are feeling the pinch from rising costs. Owner Seref Fayat said he converted his 4 percent euro-denominated loans to lira at 10 percent. “No need to take on additional FX risk,” he said. “I pay a higher rate, but at least I can see ahead.”