A series of fund redemption suspensions by private equity funds are disrupting the market. One notorious example is Lime Asset Management which saw losses of up to 1.6 trillion won ($1.3 billion).
Many investors, not only corporate investors but also individuals who invested a significant portion of their wealth, were hit hard. There are other cases of mis-selling and failures of private equity funds, such as Derivative-Linked Funds (DLFs), Discovery Fund and Optimus Fund, which have left many investors devastated.
Inevitably, the credit of the Korean financial market plunged. In the stream of disasters, and the very role and function of the Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) has come into question.
The FSS is the authority in full control of financial businesses and the market itself in Korea. The FSS has a vast number of responsibilities, ranging from price and commission rates, to the very management of financial products released by each and every company onto the market. It is clear the FSS did not function properly considering recent events. In 2015, the financial authorities relaxed regulations on private equity funds with the intention of benefiting the market.
However, without any appropriate form of guidance or rules provided, fund management companies with little expertise came up with competitive high-risk products. The precautions taken were too cursory. The FSS betrayed honest players and consumers by allowing the entrance of a series of sloppy products onto the market. The FSS' irresponsibility cannot be overshadowed by the reckless actions of the corporations.
The actions taken by the FSS after the incidents were made public are also controversial, too. After the DLF crisis in 2019, the FSS banned banks and insurance companies from selling private equity funds and "trust goods." The FSS took this measure in response to the criticism that it failed to supervise corporations to ensure consumers fully understood the risks of investment. Interestingly enough, the FSS seems to have forgotten the fact that there were problems in terms of both sales and supervision.
Banning the sale of such products is a clear violation of the freedom of choice that consumers should be allowed to entertain. If the FSS was truly concerned about protecting investors, the actions taken should have been to ease the shock of incomplete sales and minimize mis-selling. Stopping the sale of products and goods in the market itself does not help to deliver the actual information that consumers deserve. This is just an inversion in the protection and promotion of consumers' rights.
The FSS ordered Lime Asset Management to fully compensate investors for its suspension of fund redemption. Full compensation is unprecedented. It seems like a political decision, as a response to the suspicion that political figures could be related to the issue. One cannot help but be reminded of the chronic dysfunction of government and politics intervening in the private financial sector. It has been the main factor dragging down the competitive edge of the Korean financial market and its corporations for a long time.
Investment encompasses not only profit but also the responsibility of having to bear risks and losses. It is clear that the management of the fund and sellers are to blame for failing to provide full and clear information to consumers. Nevertheless, investors who took high risks for higher returns should take their own fair share of responsibility.
To absolve investors from any sort of responsibility is purely political and populistic. Political influence affects the market negatively. Such decisions only trigger a moral hazard among investors and eventually result in the shrinking of the market. This is a loss for both the companies and investors. The market will be regulated from inventing and developing competitive financial products, which in turn can become a potential loss for future investors.
With Hong Kong losing its appeal as a financial hub in Asia, many foreign finance corporations are now moving to other countries. It is saddening to discover that Korea has been chosen by none. With strict regulations by the financial authorities, the freedom of enterprise is limited. Not to mention political influence lowering the efficiency of the financial market. Under such adverse circumstances, no policy to enhance competitiveness in finance is likely to emerge.
The FSS must provide clear and straightforward guidelines that befit the spirit of the free market for finance corporations to abide by. Consumers' rights and freedom of choice in the financial market can be well-protected and promoted in a market in which quality finance items compete with one another. Cutting off any possible liability by the means of regulation can never be the solution.
The profit and stability is proportionate to the competitiveness of financial companies. Activation of the financial market, and assurance of market stability can be achieved with clear lines of conduct and rules which will avoid hurting the freedom of the market itself. Now it is time for the FSS to take responsibility, not run away from it.
Kwack Eun-kyoung (firstname.lastname@example.org) is manager of economic policy department of Center for Free Enterprise (CFE).
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