South Korea’s Value Up Initiative; Can the Country Follow in Japan’s Footsteps?

Mar 2024
Country Focus

On 26 February 2024, South Korea’s Financial Services Commission (FSC) together with the Korean Exchange (KRX) announced the country’s Corporate Value Up Programme. Similar to, and most likely inspired by, Japan’s decade-long initiative, the aim is to raise valuations and boost shareholder returns. This is a move to address the so-called ‘Korea discount’ where listed companies tend to have lower valuations compared than their global peers. In fact, over two thirds of listed companies on the Kospi have a price-to-book (P/B) ratio of less than 11.

Source: Bloomberg

A significant contributor to the Korea discount is weak corporate governance standards, particularly within the notorious chaebols - wealthy and influential family-owned conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai Motor and LG. Chaebols have traditionally prioritised maintaining control over maximising shareholder value and including minority shareholders in active participation. One notable example is the deliberate suppression of company value to minimise the blow to the next generation when it comes to paying the hefty 50-60% inheritance tax. However, it's important to recognise that while chaebols play a crucial role, there are other factors contributing to the discount, including traditionally low dividend payouts and inefficient asset utilisation among Korean companies.

The Corporate Value Up Programme is a set of voluntary guidelines encouraging companies to devise mid- to long- term plans and targets to increase shareholder value, with board members playing a key role in the implementation. Companies are encouraged to disclose these plans annually on the KRX website. Korean financial regulators have emphasised that there are significant financial incentives for companies to participate in the programme, claiming that the incentives will exceed those offered by Japan in its equivalent initiative. In addition, best practice companies (those with a proven track record of profitability or those that are expected to boost valuation) will be included in the upcoming Korea Value-up Index, the other major pillar of Korea’s efforts.

The Korea Value-Up Index, to be introduced in June, mirrors Japan's JPX Prime 150 Index by including companies that are making efforts to improve their valuation. The purpose of the index is to create a market environment that promotes investments in such companies, makes them more accessible to retail investors and enhances market transparency. Pension funds and institutional investors will use the index as a benchmark, and ETFs tracking the index are expected to be launched by December. Evaluations of key financial indicators, including P/B ratio, price-to-earnings ratio and return on equity will be part of the index's criteria. These indicators, along with dividend payouts, will be regularly published on the KRX website.

Concerns have been raised about the lack of detail in Korea’s Value Up Initiative, particularly regarding the unspecified tax incentives the FSC places great emphasis on. Another source of disappointment is the voluntary nature of the programme; without enforcement companies may not take decisive action to improve valuations, rendering the initiative meaningless. As a result, the Kospi Index fell by 0.8% on the day of the announcement2.

The FSC has responded to such criticism by stating that is it more realistic to provide powerful incentives than to enforce cooperation, and that final guidelines will be announced in June. The FSC has also stressed the importance taking a long-term view. Chairman Kin Joo-hyun stated that “enhancing the corporate value of a company is not something that can be achieved in a short period of time with only one or two measures.”

A look at Japan may help to better understand Korea and its initiative. Japan has faced similar challenges of low valuations and shareholder returns since its market crash in 1987. As a result, the country embarked on a corporate governance mission over a decade ago. Efforts ramped up last year when the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) announced in March that listed companies with a P/B ratio of less than one must submit a plan to improve capital efficiency. In October, the TSE announced its ‘name and shame’ measure whereby from January 2024 it will publish a list of companies with poor shareholder returns that have disclosed these plans, thus indirectly calling out companies that haven’t. These efforts are finally bearing fruit as the Nikkei 225 hit a 34-year high on 22nd Feb closing above 39,000 points3. Many investors are putting Japan back on the agenda in 2024 after a 34-year hiatus.

So, what lessons can Korea learn from Japan? While Korea’s initiative may result in little change in the short-term, due to its unspecified and voluntary nature, it should not be deemed insignificant. Given that Japan’s reforms took over a decade to take effect, Korea’s equivalent reforms should not be expected to happen overnight but should be considered an important starting point for long-term improvements.

1 Bloomberg
2 Bloomberg
3 Bloomberg
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