South Korea ready for post Covid-19 M&A expansion

We spoke with Howard Lee, Partner and Head of Seoul at BDA Partners, who discussed the outlook of the M&A activities in South Korea, the impressive growth of the Korean private equity market and the role of a great financial advisor.

Inbound acquisitions of Korean assets by foreign investors have been inactive over the past year. It is largely related to the impact of Covid-19 on overseas buyers. For example, when I talked to potential buyers in the US or China about Korean assets, the general feedback was, under the Covid situation, we were unable to organize ourselves to seriously look at the asset. The Korean inbound market will be more active when the Covid situation improves globally during 2021.

Also, overseas acquisitions by Korean companies in the US and European market have not been particularly active over the last decade. Only few top conglomerates in Korea, like Samsung, LG and SK, tend to execute such M&A transactions. In general, most Korean companies tend to take a conservative stance when it comes to allocating considerable resources for cross-border M&A transactions. The problem resides in their limited exposure to cross-border M&A as well as in post transaction steps such as PMI (Post-Merger Integration). Thus, in order to penetrate overseas market through M&A strategy, it is important that they approach and confront the deal confidently but with proper preparation. Secondly, out of those major conglomerates, their hands are tied up by regulations. So, even though they would intend to go out looking at M&A opportunities, there are sometimes issues at the corporate level or sometimes at the level of key individuals.

Korean financial sponsors are quite capable, in terms of sourcing capital and executing transactions. Most Korean financial sponsors are supported by large limited partners such as the National Pension Service, the largest public pension fund in South Korea. As private equity funds continue growing in Korea, they are pressured to invest capital and make investments. Moreover, the Korean private equity market is relatively mature compared to other Asian countries and the private equity professionals are very capable and intelligent, exerting high level of professionalism in sourcing high quality assets and undertaking extensive due diligence.

The growth of Korean private equity has quite a unique story. In Korea, conglomerates divest certain affiliates every year. However, for various cultural reasons, transaction between corporates in Korea is very rare. For example, if Samsung sells one of its affiliates to LG, it would be considered exactly a kind of betrayal to employees. So, rather than directly selling the affiliate to another corporate, they would likely have an indirect discussion and sell it first to a private equity fund. A few years later under private equity ownership, the fund would then sell the asset to another conglomerate. This is a pretty typical process in Korea, and that is why financial sponsors are very active in acquiring assets, without many challenges divesting to corporates a few years later.

The expected booming M&A activities in 2021 will be largely driven by the pent-up in transactions. Many private equity funds had good assets ready to be divested in 2020 but the M&A process was disrupted by Covid-19. These funds are now looking to resume these M&A processes in 2021. We will likely see a number of large assets come to the market in 2021. In the case of corporates, their outbound investments in the US, Japan and European markets have also been put on hold because of Covid. As we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel by the end of 2020, these activities are also likely to resume during 2021.

As far as my knowledge goes, the market has already begun its process to rejuvenate M&A activities. A number of advisors/bankers are already in the process of developing deals and we can soon expect the market to be flooded with deals.

In my perspective, each chaebol has been focusing on building up their internal taskforce in 2020 looking to identify and resolve potential in-house issues related to liquidity, financial performance, etc. As a result,  there were no significant transactions in 2020, other than SK Hynix’s acquisition of Intel’s NAND memory business for US$10bn.

For the past few years, chaebols were not active about overseas M&A. However, they now realize the future depends on their capabilities in AI, semiconductor, data, platform business, etc. As evidenced by Hyundai Motors’ recent investment in a global robotics company in the US, I think that these kinds of investment and acquisition by chaebols will be flourishing going forward.

One of the most attractive sectors in M&A over the next five years will be the industrials sector as it needs to be consolidated or restructured. Large industrials companies in Korea such as Samsung, LG and SK will need to complete some consolidation or restructuring, whether it is acquiring a competitor or exiting this sector soon in preparation for the ESG era. Based on the expected market dynamics as mentioned above, there will be a myriad of acquisition opportunities of legacy business under the consolidation or ESG preparation.

In addition, other attractive sector to look out for is the tech-driven industry which Korean chaebols and conglomerates are focusing on at the moment. Businesses related to AI, data, cloud computing, semiconductor are the ones that the conglomerates not only have strong fundamental on but also heavily investing in as well.

Over the past decade, I think the top five or six conglomerates in Korea accounted for more than 80% of the fees paid to M&A financial advisors. That is because those conglomerates have sizable revenues and there are many M&A deals being sourced from them. In recent years, the private equity sector has been growing fast, contributing more and more to the financial advisory business across Korea.

Therefore, an advisor needs to focus on these two client types, and be able to deliver what they require. Corporate clients value the advisory firm’s network in both domestic and global markets. Private equity clients tend to look at each individual banker, their capabilities and track record for instance. So, I think M&A financial advisory needs to be built up in these two ways. Any advisory firm that is successful in building extensive local and global networks, and continuing to hire  great professionals, will end up in a better position compared to the competition.

Another perspective here is the M&A financial advisory firms need to act like a bridge between corporates and private equity funds. If we build up a private pipeline between the two, we can arrange the one-on-one deal between private fund and corporate.

BDA has an edge in our unparalleled local Korean and global networks, extended experience in sell-side process, and seamless execution by the global team of professional bankers. Going forward, BDA Seoul will keep hiring highly competent people and delivering bigger transactions.

In this light, BDA Seoul is currently in discussion with a U.S. law firm to help Korean corporates elevate their knowledge of rules and practices to be considered when acquiring U.S. publicly-listed companies and will hold a session in March where all M&A staffs from most of major corporates in Korea will be invited. I believe this will greatly improve our reputation in the Korean market and strengthen our relationship with the potential clients.

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About BDA Partners

BDA Partners is the global investment banking advisor for Asia. We are a premium provider of Asia-related advice to sophisticated clients globally, with 25 years’ experience advising on cross-border M&A, capital raising, and financial restructuring. We provide global reach with our teams in New York and London, and true regional depth through our seven Asian offices in Mumbai, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo. BDA has deep expertise in the Chemicals, Consumer & Retail, Health, Industrials, Services and Technology sectors. We work relentlessly to earn our clients’ trust by delivering insightful advice and outstanding outcomes. BDA Partners has strategic partnerships with William Blair, a premier global investment banking business, and with DBJ (Development Bank of Japan), a Japanese government-owned bank with US$150bn of assets.

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