Alternative investments are attracting a significant pool of local wealth, including sovereign wealth and pensions, and investment by high net worth individuals and family offices.
The growth of Korean investors’ overseas allocations is outpacing that of their domestic allocations, driven by limited opportunities in their own jurisdiction and a thirst for higher returns. Fund managers are extending into new locations, with Korea being an attractive destination for finding new investors.
Under the Financial Investment Services and Capital Markets Act of Korea (FSCMA), collective investment schemes or funds are classified into public funds and private funds, depending on whether the fund is offered to investors by way of public offering (ie, investment solicitations vis-à-vis more than 49 prospective retail investors) or if it is offered to certain eligible investors by way of private placement. There is no separate classification for funds investing in alternative assets. However, since most of the funds investing in alternative assets are established as private funds, the terms “alternative investment funds" (AIFs) and “private funds” will be used interchangeably in this chapter.
Under the FSCMA amendment, which will take effect on 21 October 2021, private funds are further classified into two types:
GPFs can be established using various types of legal structures. In practice, the most common form of GPF is an investment trust, which has the following features:
GPFs may also be established in various corporate forms, usually as an investment company or an investment limited liability company, the major features of which are detailed below.
Investment Limited Liability Company
IPFs must take the form of an investment limited partnership company. Members of an investment limited partnership company consist of at least one member with unlimited liability (unlimited liability member) and at least one limited member with limited liability (limited liability member) to third-party creditors of the investment limited partnership company. Investors participate in the company as limited liability members. The manager must be the unlimited liability member of the investment limited partnership company.
The primary body of law regulating the investment funds industry in Korea is the FSCMA.
The main regulator is the Financial Services Commission (FSC). Many of the supervisory responsibilities of the FSC are delegated to the Financial Supervisory Service (FSS), the enforcement arm of the FSC, which is responsible for day-to-day supervision and regulation of the financial industry, including fund registration and reporting of fund establishment, regular and ad hoc regulatory reporting, securities registration statement filings, processing of fund manager licence applications and so on.
Investment Restrictions – Target Investment Assets
In terms of target investment assets, private funds are allowed to invest in any assets that have monetary value. However, private funds making investments in real estate assets must not:
Restrictions on Leverage
Private funds are subject to certain limits on their borrowing, guaranteeing and investment in financial derivatives. Specifically, the ratio of the sum of the following amounts over the GPF's net assets (leverage ratio) must be lower than 400%:
Restrictions on Management Participation Investment
A private fund making investments in a portfolio company with the aim of participating in its management, business restructuring or improvement on its governance (such investments are “management participation investments”) by way of acquisition of either (i) 10% or more of the total number of outstanding voting shares in the portfolio company or (ii) less than 10% of the total number of outstanding voting shares in the portfolio company that enables the IPF to exercise de facto control over the major business of the portfolio company (eg, by way of appointment and dismissal of directors) must dispose of such voting shares in the portfolio company within 15 years of their acquisition.
In addition, a private fund must report any management participation investment to the FSS within two weeks of the investment.
Private funds can make investments by way of originating loans. A private fund that originates loans must comply with the following:
Korean law does not expressly prohibit private funds from investing in digital assets. However, it appears that there has not been any Korean fund established for the purposes of investing in digital assets since the regulators informally took the position that investment managers in Korea should not invest fund assets in digital currencies until the pending legislation creating the regulatory framework on the digital asset market is finalised.
There are no specific restrictions on private funds’ investments in consumer credit and other loan portfolios or cannabis/cannabis-related assets.
The establishment of a private fund does not require prior authorisation or registration from the regulators. However, an ex-post report must be filed with the FSS within two weeks of a private fund’s establishment.
Local funds must have Korean investment managers as their managers. Specifically, a GPF must have a GPF manager as its investment manager and an IPF must have a licensed IPF manager as its general partner. A GPF manager may outsource its investment management function, subject to certain reporting requirements and restrictions (see 3.6 Outsourcing of Investment Functions/Business Operations).
An investment trust is a contractual form of fund, so it is not a legal entity. Other GPFs established in a corporate form and IPFs are legal entities, but they are prohibited from having their own standing officers or employees other than their corporate directors or general partners, who must also be their GPF managers or IPF managers, as applicable. In addition, corporate GPFs and IPFs must maintain a main business office, but are required not to have any other business offices.
A GPF is required to engage a trustee for custody of the fund's assets. In addition, a GPF in the form of an investment company is required to engage a local administrator, and GPFs established in other legal structures usually engage local administrators.
An IPF is required to engage a trustee for custody of its assets.
Non-local service providers are prohibited from being engaged by local funds.
Taxation of AIFs varies depending upon the type of AIF. In addition, treatment under the relevant tax law may vary depending on whether the AIF meets the following requirements to be classified as a “qualifying fund”:
Taxation of a Trust
There is no taxation at the trust level and taxable income is only recognised once the income is distributed to the investors. Any income distributed by qualifying funds to individual investors is taxed as dividends, whereas income distribution by funds that do not meet the requirements of a qualifying fund is taxed according to the nature of that income (ie, interest, dividends, capital gains or business profits). When the income is distributed to corporate investors, the distribution constitutes taxable income for a given taxable year and is subject to corporate income tax at the corporate investor level. As such, the tax treatment of the distribution does not differ based on whether or not the fund is a qualifying fund.
Taxation of Company-Type Funds
At the fund level, company-type funds such as investment companies and investment limited liability companies under the FSCMA are, in principle, subject to corporate income tax on investment profits from investment operations. However, if 90% or more of the distributable income is paid out as dividends, this amount is deducted from the taxable income, which enables the fund to avoid double taxation at the fund level. After taxes are paid at the corporate level, net profits are distributed to each investor in the form of dividend income and taxed again at the investor level.
Taxation of IPFs
IPFs may elect to be treated as pass-through entities for tax purposes so that income tax is not incurred at the IPF level and each partner’s income from the IPF will be subject to corporate income tax or individual income tax. If the IPF does not make such an election, the fund itself, as opposed to the investors, is liable for taxes at applicable corporate income tax rates.
At the investor level, income arising from the IPF is regarded as dividends, except in the case of the following foreign investors resident in a country that has a tax treaty with Korea:
For those investors that qualify for such exception, their income from the IPF will be classified based on the underlying income recognised by the IPF. Accordingly, if the IPF received capital gains, then the distribution of such capital gains to the qualifying foreign investors will be treated as capital gains for the foreign investors and not as dividend income.
Trusts established in Korea do not generally qualify for benefits under the double-tax treaties Korea has entered into with other jurisdictions. However, the Korea-US double-tax treaty allows for the treatment of income received by a partnership or trust to be determined by the residence and taxation of the partner or the person subject to taxation on such income. Company-type funds established in Korea would generally be considered Korean-resident corporations and would therefore be eligible for benefits under double-tax treaties.
It is common for private funds to establish special purpose vehicles (SPVs) as their subsidiaries.
Promoters/sponsors of local AIFs are mostly local companies.
Most of the investors in local AIFs are local investors. Therefore, in general, Korean investors such as banks, asset managers, corporate investors, insurance companies, government agencies, public pension funds and family offices invest in AIFs established in Korea.
Due to the slow economic growth and stagnant capital markets, the traditional public funds market (open to all investors, including both retail and institutional investors) has been in the doldrums, with total assets under management (AUM) slightly increasing from KRW210.3 trillion (approximately USD174 billion) in 2009 to KRW285.9 trillion (approximately USD240 billion) in June 2021.
In contrast, the private funds market (catering mainly to institutional investors, corporations and high net worth individuals) has seen a huge growth in demand. The AUM of private funds (excluding IPFs) has more than tripled, from KRW108.2 trillion (approximately USD90 billion) in 2009 to KRW465.1 trillion (approximately USD400 billion) in June 2021.
In terms of investment strategies, the growth of AIFs focusing on real estate, infrastructure and private credits has been outstanding over the past several years.
Recently, however, there has been a series of scandals where private funds managers and their distributors were reportedly involved in various irregularities, such as mis-selling, embezzlement of fund assets, and managing funds in violation of the constituent documents of the funds, resulting in huge losses to the investors in private funds, especially retail investors.
Investor Disclosure Requirements – GPFs Offered to Retail Investors
Distributors and any other persons engaged in investment solicitation or sales of GPFs vis-à-vis prospective retail investors must provide such retail investors with a key product information document for each GPF. The key product information document must include information on the following items.
In addition, GPF managers must provide retail investors in the GPFs with a quarterly asset management report for each GPF including information on the base price of the collective investment securities as of the end of each quarter and a summary of the asset management activities during the quarter, among other matters.
The key product information documents and the quarterly asset management reports of GPFs are not publicly available.
Regulatory Reporting Requirements – GPFs
GPF managers must file a quarterly report with the FSS for each GPF they manage, including the following information:
In addition, if any of the following events occurs in relation to a GPF, its manager must report such event to the FSS within three business days:
Finally, a GPF manager must file an amendment report within two weeks when there is a change in any item reported in the fund establishment report of a GPF it manages.
Regulatory Reporting Requirements – IPFs
An IPF manager must file a report with the FSS regarding each IPF it manages, including the following information on an annual basis where the AUM of the fund is less than KRW10 billion (approximately USD8.6 million), or on a semi-annual basis where the AUM of the fund is KRW10 billion or more:
In addition, if any of the following events occurs in relation to an IPF, its manager must report such event to the FSS within three business days:
Finally, an IPF manager must file an amendment report within two weeks when there is a change in any item reported in the fund establishment report of an IPF it manages.
Other than the major overhaul of the private fund regulatory regime that will take effect on 21 October 2021, no other significant regulatory change is anticipated in the near future.
GPF managers are typically established as joint stock companies. IPF managers are established mostly as either joint stock companies or limited liability companies.
Both GPF managers and IPF managers are subject to the registration regime. The requirements for registration as a GPF manager and an IPF manager are set out below.
GPF Manager Registration
IPF Manager Registration
The applicant prepares the application and supporting documents, and will normally need to have a pre-filing consultation with the FSS reviewing officer. With respect to the time required for a GPF manager registration, the FSC must process the application and complete the registration within two months of the applicant filing a full application package, excluding the time taken by the applicant to supplement the application when required by the regulator. In an IPF manager registration, the FSC must process the application and complete the registration within one month after accepting the completed application package, excluding the time taken by the applicant to supplement the application when required by the regulator.
Fund managers are generally established as corporations in Korea. Management/advisory vehicles that are established or tax-resident in Korea are subject to corporate income tax on any form of profit-related returns, including carried interest and management fees.
The corporate income tax rates are as follows:
In addition, the local surtax is taxed in addition to corporate income tax, at progressive tax rates ranging from 0.1% to 2.5% on the taxable income.
There are no exemptions or rules available in Korea to ensure that alternative funds with a manager in Korea do not have a taxable presence in the jurisdiction.
As discussed in 3.3 Tax Regime, there is no special tax treatment on carried interest; it is subject to corporate income tax at the regular tax rates applicable to Korean corporations.
GPF managers are allowed to outsource their investment function or business operations in relation to the management of GPFs, subject to certain restrictions and a prior reporting obligation to the FSS. Specifically, a GPF manager may outsource investment function in relation to a GPF investing in assets located in other jurisdictions to an offshore investment manager if such offshore investment manager is licensed in its home jurisdiction to engage in collective investment management businesses.
By contrast, IPF managers are not allowed to outsource their management functions to third parties.
See 3.2 Regulatory Regime.
Non-local managers are not allowed to establish local AIFs under Korean law. However, non-local managers may access Korean investors by way of offering AIFs established in other jurisdictions (offshore funds) to Korean investors, as long as such offshore funds are registered in advance with the FSS.
Eligible investors for a GPF are:
Eligible investors for an IPF are:
Since 1 January 2015, establishing a single investor fund has been prohibited in Korea, except for when the single investor is a certain type of prescribed investor, such as public funds established pursuant to laws (eg, the National Pension Fund), Korea Post, and mutual aid associations and mutual aid co-operatives (eg, the Korea Teachers Credit Union and the Military Mutual Aid Association).
Traditionally, most of the investors in AIFs consisted of large institutional investors and financial institutions. Recently, however, an increasing number of high net worth individuals have started to invest in AIFs.
Please see 4.1 Types of Investor in Alternative Funds.
The marketing of AIFs must be conducted by way of private placement to the eligible investors listed in 4.1 Types of Investor in Alternative Funds and must not be offered by way of public offering. In addition, the FSCMA provides a few more specific regulations on the marketing of GPFs, including the applicability of the suitability and appropriateness test, depending on the types of investors and the requirements for investment advertisements.
Finally, establishing a single investor AIF is prohibited except when the single investor is a certain type of prescribed investor, such as public funds established pursuant to specific laws (eg, the National Pension Fund), Korea Post, and mutual aid associations and mutual aid co-operatives (eg, the Korea Teachers Credit Union and the Military Mutual Aid Association).
Local investors can invest in AIFs as long as they are eligible investors as listed in 4.1 Types of Investor in Alternative Funds.
GPF managers and IPF managers can market their own funds without obtaining an additional licence. However, a GPF manager must employ a certified investment solicitation expert or engage an outside investment solicitation individual registered with the FSC in order to market GPFs it manages without engaging an outside fund distributor.
GPF managers or IPF managers can opt to engage locally licensed investment brokers or investment dealers as distributors of their funds (generally, banks, securities companies and insurance companies). In practice, most GPF managers engage outside fund distributors, while the marketing of IPFs is usually conducted by their own managers.
Please see 2.17 Disclosure/Reporting Requirements regarding the mandatory pre-investment disclosure and ongoing reporting requirements for GPFs offered to retail investors.
GPFs and IPFs offered solely to institutional investors are not subject to any mandatory disclosure requirements to investors. However, private funds managers customarily prepare and provide an investment proposal document for the prospective institutional investors, which normally includes information on the investment structure, strategies and risks, plus the track record of the manager.
With respect to resident investors, the income from the qualifying fund is generally subject to withholding tax at a rate of 15.4% (including local surtax), subject to certain exceptions available for sovereign investors or financial institutions (such as banks and insurance companies). Any taxes withheld by the funds are creditable when the corporate income tax or individual income tax is calculated.
For a resident corporation, any income from the fund is subject to corporate income tax at progressive tax rates:
Local surtax is charged in addition to corporate income tax, at progressive tax rates ranging from 0.1% to 2.5% on the taxable income.
As not-for-profit corporations, pension fundsare also subject to tax. However, the effective tax rates for such pension funds are generally significantly lower because of special reserves that they can set aside and deduct from taxable income. Furthermore, pension funds such as the National Pension Fund or Korea Post are part of the Korean government body and are therefore not subject to corporate income tax.
For a resident individual, any income from the qualifying fund is classified as dividends and subject to individual income tax at progressive tax rates ranging from 14% to 45%. In addition, local surtax is charged in addition to individual income tax, at progressive tax rates ranging from 1.4% to 4.5% on the taxable income.
For a non-resident investor, the income from the qualifying fund is generally subject to withholding tax at a rate of 22% (including local surtax) or the applicable withholding rate under the relevant tax treaty, subject to certain favourable exceptions available for foreign sovereign funds that invest through domestic IPFs, as discussed in 2.11 Tax Regime.
Korea signed the Model 1 Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the USA on 10 June 2015. Korea has been treated as if it had an IGA in effect since 30 June 2014, following the issuance of implementation regulations by Korea’s FSC on 18 June 2014.
On 29 October 2014, the Korean government also entered into the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement (MCAA) to exchange information with the jurisdictions committed to the Common Reporting Standard (CRS). On 16 February 2017, Korea amended its regulations to implement the automatic exchange of financial information with foreign countries under the CRS and FATCA.