Private Equity 2021

Last Updated September 14, 2021

South Korea

Law and Practice

Authors



Lee & Ko is Korea’s premier full-service law firm, and its private equity team is held in the highest regard for its ability to handle complex transactions for both domestic and overseas private equity funds. Since the introduction of regulations governing private equity funds in the early 2000s, Lee & Ko’s private equity team has been a pioneer in the field, having successfully advised on the formation of the first private equity fund in Korea. With the growth of the private equity market in Korea, Lee & Ko’s private equity team has grown into one of the largest and most trusted practices in the country. In recent years, Lee & Ko has garnered cutting-edge transaction experience and knowledge, having represented global and domestic private equity firms in some of the most high-profile mergers and acquisitions transactions in Korea.

Joint investments between private equity funds and strategic investors are on the rise. This trend stems from the amendment to the Financial Investment Services and Capital Markets Act (FISCMA) in 2015 allowing for (i) the incorporation of multi-level specialpurpose companies for investment purposes and (ii) investment by strategic investors into special purpose companies. As joint investments with strategic investors came to the fore, funds that had previously focused on buyout transactions have also recently begun to invest as minority financial investors.

As private equity funds invest in start-ups like venture capital, and venture capital invests in large scale like private equity, there is a blurring of the boundaries between private equity and venture capital in the M&A market in Korea.

The distribution industry has seen an uptick in deal activity in the COVID-19 era. Growth investments in the platform industry have been very active as well, as pre-IPO minority investments by private equity funds abound.

The FISCMA was amended on 20 April 2021 and the new law will take effect on 21 October 2021. Under the new FISCMA, private funds will be categorised as "general private funds" or "institutional private funds" and private equity funds under the previous law will transition into institutional private funds. Both types of private funds will be allowed to invest freely, but the scope of investors for institutional private funds will be limited to qualifying institutional investors, including financial companies and listed companies meeting certain requirements, and the offering procedure for general private funds, which will be open to individual and general investors, will become more rigorous.

As investors that can take part in institutional private funds will be limited to financial companies, listed companies meeting certain requirements and other institutional investors, market entry of newly formed general partners that do not have ready access to such investors will become more impenetrable.

Primary Regulators

The primary regulators relevant to private equity funds and transactions involving such funds are the Financial Services Commission and the Financial Supervisory Service since funds established under the FISCMA bear a duty to continuously report matters ex post to the Financial Services Commission and/or the Financial Supervisory Service from the time of incorporation to the time of liquidation, in accordance with the applicable laws. The subject of these reports consists not only of the fund’s total commitment and contribution amounts, but also the identities of the target companies in which the funds made investments.

On the antitrust regulatory front, as the legal entity form of funds established under the FISCMA is typically a company, the establishment of such funds will in most cases require approval of business combination from the Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC). On the other hand, when private equity funds established overseas seek to offer equity to Korean investors, they must undergo a registration process with the Financial Services Commission and the Financial Supervisory Service in advance.

Regulatory Issues

There are three main regulatory issues that impact transactions involving private equity funds.

First, if the target is a listed company, private equity funds, like other market participants, bear disclosure obligations on various matters to the Financial Services Commission, the Financial Supervisory Service and/or the Korea Exchange (KRX). Furthermore, although this rarely occurs in Korea, if a private equity fund intends to invest by way of a tender offer, it must proceed in compliance with the procedures prescribed by the FISCMA.

Second, when acquiring more than a certain equity stake in a target that is above a certain size, a private equity fund must obtain approval on business combination from the KFTC. While this regulation also applies to other market participants, in the case of private equity funds, the anti-competitiveness is determined based on the entirety of the fund’s portfolio companies.

The last regulatory issue applies only to overseas funds. Such funds bear an obligation to report on the acquisition of target shares to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, foreign exchange banks and/or the Bank of Korea under the Foreign Exchange Transaction Act or the Foreign Investment Promotion Act. Furthermore, these overseas funds may be restricted from investing, or limited in their shareholding ratio, in certain industries in which foreign investments are statutorily barred or regulated, such as broadcasting or telecommunication. In addition, if the target possesses national core technology as designated under the Act on Prevention of Divulgence and Protection of Industrial Technology, the overseas fund must obtain prior approval from, or file a report in advance with, the Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy in order to acquire over a certain percentage of the target’s shares.

In the course of M&A in Korea, it is standard practice to conduct a full-blown due diligence, unless the target is very small. Information is usually provided through a virtual data room and management presentations/break-out sessions, as well as periodic requests for information (RFIs) and written Q&As, among other platforms. While the depth of review differs case by case, the legal due diligence is generally conducted without a materiality threshold.

For private equity investors, the focus of legal due diligence does not stray significantly from that of a corporate buyer and due diligence is conducted in all areas including corporate/securities, equity ownership/dilution, material contracts, licences/permits, employment/labour and litigation, etc. However, in the case of private equity investors, it is more common to perform separate due diligence on compliance matters (anti-bribery and corruption/AML/sanctions) or environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

Although vendor due diligence is generally not a common feature, in comparison to transactions involving a typical corporate seller, transactions involving private equity sellers are more likely to feature vendor due diligence. While there may be instances where advisers attach a liability cap to the vendor due diligence reports upon providing credence thereto, the status quo is non-reliance. This also applies to buy-side diligence reports.

Most private equity funds are acquired through private treaty sale and purchase agreements. Although auction sales are often held for larger-scale M&A, privately negotiated transactions are more common across the board. Tender offers, on the other hand, are rarely carried out in Korea.

There are no notable differences between the terms of a privately negotiated transaction and the terms of an auction sale. However, it is often the case in auction sales that seller-friendly terms (eg, material adverse effect (MAE) bring-down, warranty and indemnity (W&I) insurance) are agreed upon from a closing certainty or seller’s clean exit perspective.

In Korea, although private equity funds sometimes become party to the transaction, it is more often the case that a special purpose company that the fund incorporated for such purpose (investment purpose company, or IPC) becomes involved in the acquisition documentation. The underlying rationale is that while most private equity transactions utilise acquisition financing, borrowing at the fund level itself is largely restricted under the FISCMA. In transactions not financed by acquisition financing, funds may become parties to the acquisition documentation or, depending on the deal timeline, the fund (or the general partner thereof) may enter into the acquisition documentation and later assign contractual rights and obligations to the IPC established at a later date.

It should be noted that under the newly amended FISCMA that shall take effect in October 2021, borrowing at the fund level will become permissible. However, in order to limit liability exposure, funds are expected to maintain the current deal practice of utilising IPCs for acquisition documentation purposes. Inbound investments by overseas funds are also structured in the same way by utilising IPCs.

Financing of Private Equity Deals

For private equity funds under the FISCMA, the deals are normally financed by contributions from the members of the fund. For funds that apply a leverage strategy, the IPC may additionally secure financing, but under the current FISCMA, the leverage ratio thereof is restricted at 300%. As there is judicial precedent holding that providing assets of the target as security for the acquisition financing of the IPC may be deemed to be a breach of fiduciary duty of the target’s directors, acquisition financing is not secured by the target’s assets under Korean law. Instead, acquisition financing is secured by the assets of the borrower, the IPC, such as the target shares that the IPC is to acquire through the deal.

Equity Commitment Letters

Private equity funds, incorporated pursuant to the FISCMA, can only be established as a limited partnership company under the Korean Commercial Code (KCC). Under the KCC, a general member of a limited partnership company bears unlimited liability for the debts of the limited partnership company, and a limited member thereof bears direct liability up to its amount of commitment to the limited partnership company. Accordingly, if the fund were to directly become a transactional counterparty (eg, as a buyer or investor in the M&A context), equity commitment letters from the members would not be necessary. However, there are instances where management companies obtain commitment letters from potential members of a fund to secure negotiation rights on transactions (eg, to become the preferred bidder in an auction) prior to the incorporation of the fund.

On a separate note, where an IPC becomes a transactional counterparty, such IPCs are often incorporated with a de minimis level of capital, but as the current FISCMA prohibits guarantees by private equity funds, there is difficulty in such funds issuing equity commitment letters to IPCs. In this regard, transactional counterparties sometimes demand funds to be a direct party to transaction documents and upon sufficient level of capitalisation of the IPC, to assign the contractual rights and obligations to the IPC.

For overseas funds, equity commitment letters and debt commitment letters are provided in most instances.

Typical Private Equity Deals

In the past, private equity funds favoured control deals (eg, buyouts), but minority-stake investments have become more frequent as of late. In particular, large-scale private equity funds and overseas funds have been very active in conducting pre-IPO investments and other minority investments.

In buyout investments, it is uncommon for a consortium of private equity sponsors to collectively enter into a transaction, while, on the other hand, in the case of minority investments, it is relatively more common to find a consortium of private equity funds to make a joint investment.

In Korea, co-investment by strategic investors, who seek to acquire control over the target in the future, alongside private equity funds is commonplace and under the FISCMA, investment by such strategic investors in the IPC is permitted.

The articles of incorporation of private equity funds under the FISCMA often include provisions on granting priority rights to the limited partners to make joint investments with the fund, when it is difficult for such funds to unilaterally make investments given the size of the investment opportunity, and large institutional investors (eg, the National Pension Service) actively take advantage of these joint investment opportunities.

Locked box, completion accounts and fixed prices are all used as mechanisms for consideration in M&A transactions but the predominant form is fixed price. In cross-border deals, completion accounts are also in wide use but the domestic M&A market is also seeing more deals with completion accounts as well.

While there are deals involving earn-outs, it is not a common feature of private equity transactions. In particular, an earn-out is rarely used where a private equity fund is the seller, since such funds, especially funds incorporated for the purpose of investing in a single target investment company, are focused on completing distribution and liquidation shortly thereafter. Apart from the above, there are no notable differences between private equity funds and corporate investors or sellers in determining the consideration mechanism and level of protection in relation thereto.

As mentioned in 6.1 Types of Consideration Mechanisms, locked-box consideration structures are not commonly used in private equity transactions but when used, there have been both instances of interest charged on leakage and not charged on leakage.

It is not typical to have a dispute resolution mechanism in place for a locked-box or completion accounts consideration structure and typically the parties to private equity transactions are obliged to adhere to the decision of the designated accounting firm.

The typical level of conditionality in private equity transactions is mainly as follows and does not differ from general M&A transactions:

  • representations and warranties of the parties shall be true and correct (in all material respects);
  • parties shall have performed (in all material respects) the covenants required to be performed prior to closing;
  • mandatory and suspensory regulatory conditions; in particular, business combination approval by the KFTC;
  • no litigation prohibiting the consummation of the transaction; and
  • in the case of a standalone no MAE provision, the condition becomes a key point of negotiation.

Limited conditions to regulatory conditions is not typical and financing conditions are rarely found in acquisition documentation. Third-party consent conditions are included on a case-by-case basis, but infrequently and in the case of a change of control provision in contracts with key customers, the deal may be conditional upon procuring the relevant consents; otherwise, termination of such contracts may be deemed to be an MAE. Shareholder approval is included as a condition (only) when legally mandated (eg, transfer of all or a material part of a business).

It is not common for a private equity-backed buyer to accept a “hell or high water” undertaking in deals with a regulatory condition. However, it is sometimes accepted in the bidding process by a fund investor that has no specific competing business in its portfolio to gain an advantage over the other bidders.

In private equity deals, break fees or reverse break fees are ordinarily not used. If break fees are prescribed in the acquisition documentation, however, reverse break fees are generally also prescribed therein.

When prescribing break fees, the Korean Civil Code estimates the fees to be the liquidated damages and if the court finds that such amount is excessive in comparison to the actual damages, the fees can be reduced. Therefore, most documentations deem the break fee to be a monetary penalty because although the Korean Supreme Court has held that even in the case of a monetary penalty, the courts can partially invalidate the amount, the monetary penalty must be “in contravention of public order and standards of public decency” to qualify for such reduction.

Apart from termination by mutual agreement, the typical circumstances of termination in private equity transactions are mainly as follows and do not differ from those of general M&A:

  • either party (materially) breached the representations and warranties or did not perform (in material respects) the covenants prior to closing and failed to cure this within a certain period; and
  • if the closing has not occurred on, or prior to, the long-stop date.

In transactions in which a private equity fund is the seller, and, in particular, in which such fund was solely established to invest in the target company, the seller’s interest lies in prompt distribution and liquidation, and, as such, it typically rejects any additional allocation of risk post-closing (ie, clean exit). Previously, funds achieved this purpose by bearing liability and providing an escrow for breach of representations and warranties for a short term. More recently, it has become common practice for private equity sellers to limit their liability by demanding the buyer to subscribe to W&I insurance and only bearing liability in the case of fraud.

In transactions where a private equity fund is the buyer, there are no notable differences with transactions involving general corporate buyers.

As explained in 6.8 Allocation of Risk, private equity sellers normally provide general warranties, in the same manner as corporate sellers, but attempt to limit liability by requiring the buyer to subscribe to W&I insurance.

For the same reasons as provided in 8.1 Equity Incentivisation and Ownership, it is not customary for the management team to hold shares, but where a management team is selling shares it holds, it normally provides the same level of warranties to the buyer as the private equity seller.

To limit liability for warranties, survival periods, de minimis, basket and cap are all utilised in documentation and anti-sandbagging is generally a fiercely negotiated point. Survival periods for mid- to large-size deals that proceed via auction bids are typically 1.5 to 2 years, with longer periods usually granted for specific warranties on tax, labour, environment and compliance. Regarding quantum limitations, the amounts can vary from deal to deal but rarely do caps go beyond 10%. Finally, on limitation on liability for known issues, while full disclosure of the data room as an exception to the warranties was not commonly accepted in the past, recently there has been an uptick in sellers who make such demands in conjunction with anti-sandbagging.

As examined above, private equity sellers previously sought protections by bearing liability for breach of representations and warranties for a short term and having an escrow in place to back such obligations, but recently, private equity sellers have more often taken protection by making the buyer subscribe to W&I insurance and only bearing liability in the case of fraud. W&I insurance has become commonplace in deals with private equity sellers in the past several years.

However, where the seller is an overseas fund, the buyer must withhold capital gains tax but because the calculation of the withholding amount is based on the information provided by the seller, if tax is later collected from the buyer, the seller must indemnify the buyer thereon. Although insurance companies now offer products that cover liabilities stemming from capital gains tax, such risk is most commonly covered by a guarantee or an escrow for credit reinforcement provided by the overseas fund or its parent.

Litigation in connection with private equity transactions is not common, but occurs from time to time. The most commonly litigated provisions are those on indemnification pursuant to breaches of representations and warranties, but disputes also occur in connection with shareholders’ agreements where a private equity fund is the minority investor (eg, disputes over put options following failure to conduct an IPO).

Public-to-privates in private equity transactions do take place, but they are highly uncommon.

In the case of listed companies, the FISCMA stipulates that holders of 5% or more of the shares in listed companies must disclose various matters, including the quantity and class of shares, security provision status, unit prices at the time of acquisition and disposition, and counterparties in the acquisition and disposition transactions. Here, the 5% is calculated by aggregating the shares held by a shareholder and its specially related parties (including affiliates and joint holders). On the other hand, shareholders of an unlisted company do not bear such obligations.

Moreover, shareholders of listed companies holding 10% or more on an individual basis must disclose their shareholding status. Holders of 5% or more shares must report on the change to shareholding where there is a change of 1% or greater to the shareholder’s shareholding ratio. Holders of 10% or more shares must report on the change to the number of shares held where the change is in relation to 1,000 shares or more.

Unlike certain other jurisdictions, there are no mandatory offer thresholds applicable for transactions acquiring a certain equity ratio or control in Korea. The FISCMA, however, stipulates a mandatory offer to be triggered where a buyer and its affiliate(s) hold 5% or more of the shares issued by the target by purchasing shares from ten or more persons within a six-month period. In such case, even if the transactions were not made at a stock exchange, they are deemed over-the-counter unless they were made via blind auction.

In most cases, the consideration is cash.

In Korea, listed company transactions are rarely conducted via a tender offer. Most Korean listed companies have a controlling shareholder and M&A transactions on such listed companies are conducted by purchasing shares over the counter from the controlling shareholder. There have been rare exceptions of the buyer making a tender offer on the remaining shares following the above-mentioned transaction and going private. Over-the-counter transactions with a controlling shareholder include the same conditions as a general private M&A and, as such, financing is rarely included as a condition and the offer conditions cannot include those beyond the limited conditions allowed under the law (eg, certain portion of the shares to be tendered).

Even if a bidder does not obtain 100% ownership of a target, if it obtains sufficient shares to affirmatively resolve shareholder resolutions, the bidder can acquire control through director appointments. Upon obtaining controlling shares from the controlling shareholder of a listed company and subsequently obtaining 95% or more shares via a tender offer, the buyer can apply for voluntary delisting. In such case, the purchaser must provide another opportunity to the remaining shareholders on settlement trading following the delisting.

On a related note, under Korean law, a controlling shareholder holding 95% or more shares may cash out the 5% shareholders by undergoing a certain procedure, which is not highly utilised in practice, but this process can be used in obtaining 5% or less shares following the voluntary delisting.

As discussed in previous responses, obtaining the shares of a listed company via a tender offer is rare in Korea.

Hostile takeover offers are not prohibited, but rarely take place in Korea. However, the trend may change, since there has been a recent emergence of private equity funds advocating for shareholder activism.

Incentivisation of the management team is a common feature of private equity transactions and the incentive can take the form of both cash and equity. Equity incentivisation by equity-linked compensation is commonly found in private equity transactions.

In general, equity ownership is not common for the management team and even if there is such ownership, the ratio thereof is very low. However, it is common for a private equity fund to (i) purchase most of the equity from the founder of an unlisted company with the founder, holding some of the remaining equity, caused to continue to manage the company or (ii) cause the founder/seller of an unlisted company to reinvest in the fund with a lower priority in dividend compared to those of other investors while continuing to manage the company.

For the reasons raised in 8.1 Equity Incentivisation and Ownership, it is rare for managers to hold equity and even if there is equity ownership, it is generally not structured as sweet equity or institutional strip. Equity tends to be granted to management by the grant of stock options or cash incentives that are linked to performance and/or future exit considerations of the private equity buyer.

For the reasons provided in 8.1 Equity Incentivisation and Ownership, there are no typical leaver or vesting provisions. In the case of stock options, there is a statutory requirement of being in service for at least two years and generally the exercise period is determined to begin two to three years from the grant date until the fifth year therefrom. In the case of equity–linked compensation such as restricted stock units (RSUs), it often takes the structure of vesting over the course of around five years depending on the performance of the company or the individual.

It is customary to agree to restrictive covenants on non-compete and non-solicit undertakings during the term of employment and for a certain period following resignation. However, there is no clear standard on the length of such period under Korean law.

As the non-compete undertaking can raise an issue concerning infringement of the constitutional right to profession, the risk of invalidation of such undertaking can be minimised where the consideration corresponding to the non-compete undertaking can be proved and the undertaking is not in place for an extensive duration. Although this undertaking is determined on a case-by-case basis, it is understood that the validity thereof is likely recognised for six months to one year and the validity of any period exceeding one year may not be so readily recognised.

For the reasons provided in 8.1 Equity Incentivisation and Ownership, manager shareholders generally do not enjoy any protection other than tag rights nor carry any substantive influence over the exit or control of the private equity fund. However, depending on the equity ratio and importance in company business of the manager shareholders, matters of protection or influence can be settled differently. If the manager shareholder holds a high equity ratio and is key to the company business, rights akin to a minority shareholder’s rights in a joint venture could be negotiated for the manager shareholder.

Private equity fund shareholders with majority shares tend to exercise de facto control over the portfolio companies by appointing directors.

On the other hand, where a fund invests as a minority shareholder, it is typical for such fund to enter into a shareholders’ agreement with the controlling shareholder and obtain the right to appoint at least one person to the board of directors, veto rights over major management matters and information rights.

With respect to the veto rights, while they vary case by case, funds tend to demand veto rights over change to capital or governance structure or transactions concerning assets, capital expenditure (CAPEX) or loans, or related-party transactions, over a certain monetary threshold. However, if the largest shareholder seeks to consolidate its accounts with those of the target company, the consultation on veto rights tends to centre on pure minority protection rights, excluding matters on business plans, budgets, the appointment of representative directors and other ordinary business activities (as veto rights on such operational matters granted to the fund could be seen as stripping control of the largest shareholder, thereby undercutting its efforts to consolidate accounts with the target company).

The Korean Supreme Court interprets the circumstances where the corporate veil may be pierced very narrowly and where the portfolio company is operated in compliance with the general procedural requirements of corporate governance, the courts are very hesitant to pierce the corporate veil.

In one case, the court held that it is natural for overlaps to exist between the personnel of a parent company and those of its subsidiaries. The mere fact that the executive management team of the parent company holds similar positions in its subsidiaries, or that the parent company exercises control by virtue of owning all of the issued shares of its subsidiaries (or even that the subsidiaries’ businesses and operations have expanded without their capital being increased) are not sufficient reasons to view such relationships as abuse of separate legal personalities (ie, corporate veil) in relation to obligations owed by subsidiaries to creditors. Something more fundamental is required for such abuse to be seen, such as the total absence of a subsidiary’s independent existence or will to operate whereby its operations are essentially run by the parent company one and the same as part of the parent company’s own business.

In particular, it must be objectively apparent that the business and assets of the parent company and those of its subsidiaries, including as to external commercial transactions, cannot be distinguished or clearly separated. In addition, there must be a subjective element present, namely an intention to avoid the application of law to the parent company or the intention to abuse the corporate veil by utilising the subsidiaries as a purely credit-proofing measure in dealing with creditors.

While Korean private equity funds rarely impose their own compliance policies as of yet, there is a growing trend among overseas funds conducting separate due diligence on the target’s compliance or ESG issues prior to consummating the transaction and if any shortcoming is found in the course of such diligence, either introducing its compliance policies thereon or demanding enhancement of the existing policies of the target. If there are red-flag issues or risk uncovered in the course of due diligence, such demands may also be made as closing conditions and/or pre- and post-closing open-ended covenants.

Holding Period

The actual holding period for private equity transactions before the fund exits varies widely, but in the case of private equity funds incorporated under Korean law that were specially incorporated for investment in a certain target, the termination period is around five to six years. In the case of a blind pool fund, the investment period is three to four years, with a seven- to eight-year termination period. In consideration of the above, the ideal holding period for the management companies or the investors is likely around five years. However, when the fund makes a minority investment in a target that is expected to go public shortly thereafter, the target is closer to two to three years until the exit by way of an IPO.

Common Forms of Private Equity Exit

Until three to four years ago, (while there were no explicit regulations), the KRX did not allow the listing of companies in which the largest shareholder was a private equity fund and, accordingly, the exit strategy of private equity funds was limited to a private sale. However, today, the KRX allows IPOs of such companies and IPO precedents are building, with a growing number of funds targeting an IPO as their key exit strategy. This is most applicable to investments to obtain control of the target because for minority investments in a target expected to conduct an IPO in the near future, the exit strategy becomes more complex, with (i) partial sales of shares pre-IPO, (ii) sale during the IPO and (iii) sale of the remaining shares in a post-IPO block deal.

Reinvestment upon Exit

Generally, private equity sellers, incorporated under Korean law, do not reinvest upon exit.

It is not typical for a private equity fund holding a controlling stake of 50% or greater to also hold drag rights against the minority shareholders for its exit. However, where the existing largest shareholder or management remains as a minority shareholder, there are instances of the fund seeking drag rights and, in turn, the minority shareholders seeking tag rights. On a separate note, in an M&A transaction involving a consortium between private equity and a strategic investor, the private equity fund often seeks drag rights that can force the strategic investor to sell its shares at the time of the fund’s sale of its shares carrying management rights.

Conversely, where the fund makes a minority investment, it often seeks drag rights against the controlling shareholder in preparation of any potential failures to exit via an IPO or other primary exit mechanisms (eg, failed put option).

In the scenarios presented in 8.1 Equity Incentivisation and Ownership where the founder remains as a manager shareholder, or where the private equity fund makes a minority investment, it is typical practice for the minority shareholder to hold tag rights in the case of the controlling shareholder’s disposition of shares that carry management rights.

Under the KRX regulations, a mandatory lock-up obligation is imposed for six months where shares were acquired from a company conducting an IPO, or the largest shareholder and its affiliates thereof, within one year from the date of the company’s application for preliminary examination for listing.

However, if the relevant market is the KOSDAQ market, not the KRX market, the mandatory lock-up period is shortened to one month for private equity funds even if the relevant acquisition was made as above.

Finally, “relationship agreements” are rarely executed by and between the private equity seller and the target company.

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Trends and Developments


Authors



Lee & Ko is Korea’s premier full-service law firm, and its private equity team is held in the highest regard for its ability to handle complex transactions for both domestic and overseas private equity funds. Since the introduction of regulations governing private equity funds in the early 2000s, Lee & Ko’s private equity team has been a pioneer in the field, having successfully advised on the formation of the first private equity fund in Korea. With the growth of the private equity market in Korea, Lee & Ko’s private equity team has grown into one of the largest and most trusted practices in the country. In recent years, Lee & Ko has garnered cutting-edge transaction experience and knowledge, having represented global and domestic private equity firms in some of the most high-profile mergers and acquisitions transactions in Korea.

Current Overview of Private Equity Funds in Korea

Market share

Private equity funds account for a significant share of the M&A market in Korea. In 2020, transactions involving funds constituted close to 38.4% of the overall M&A market and considering that such funds accounted for only 31% of the market in 2019, the growth rate is noteworthy. To examine this growth in detail, the number of general partners operating private equity funds in Korea, as of 2020, was 337 in total, which indicates an addition of 33 new general partners in 2020 alone. Furthermore, the number of private equity funds in operation in Korea, as of 2020, was 855 and 218 of them were newly established in 2020.

Fund commitments

The amount of funds that investors committed to invest with private equity funds and that were actually invested were respectively KRW97.1 trillion and KRW70.6 trillion, as of 2020, indicating a growth of 1.7 and 1.8 times the corresponding numbers in 2015. The newly established funds also raised KRW17.9 trillion in commitments from investors, an increase of KRW2.3 trillion from the previous year.

Project private equity funds

Additionally, the number of "project" private equity funds, established with a predetermined investment target, has become three times higher than that of "blind" private equity funds, which select investment targets upon recruiting the investors (for reference, of the 218 private equity funds newly established in 2020, 168 were projects and 50 were blind).

Dissolutions

Dissolution of private equity funds also abounded as 91 private equity funds dissolved in 2020, in comparison to 26 that dissolved the preceding year, and the amount of divestments by private equity funds was KRW17.7 trillion in 2020, which was KRW6 trillion more than the preceding year, the largest increase in monetary terms since 2015. These dissolving private equity funds were found to be in existence for an average of four years.

Earlier regulatory changes

The easing of regulations on private equity funds through the amendment of the Financial Investment Services and Capital Markets Act (FISCMA) following 2015 greatly contributed to the growth of private equity funds as examined above. At the time of the amendment of the FISCMA in 2015, the financial authorities significantly eased regulations by converting the prior registration scheme for private equity funds to an ex post reporting scheme and allowing strategic investors to invest in special-purpose companies established for investments and the utilisation of multi-level special-purpose companies. These regulatory changes provided the impetus for private equity funds to become one of the major players of the Korean M&A market.

Recent Trends in the Korean Private Equity Fund (PEF) Market

Joint investments between private equity funds and strategic investors are on the rise

This trend stems from the amendment to the FISCMA in 2015 allowing for (i) the incorporation of multi-level special-purpose companies for investment purposes and (ii) investment by strategic investors into special-purpose companies. As joint investments with strategic investors came to the fore, funds that had previously focused on buyout transactions have also recently begun to invest as minority financial investors.

Strategic investors’ growing familiarity with private equity funds

As joint transactions by private equity funds and strategic investors are growing, strategic investors are becoming better accustomed to transacting with private equity funds. Accordingly, there has been a growing number of cases where strategic investors do not demand deposits or monetary penalties from the private equity counterparties and such compromises are reflected in the relevant documentation.

Lowered hurdle rates

As key interest rates have recently been lowered, the hurdle rate of carried interest has also followed suit. The internal rate of return (IRR) in the past was typically set at or around 8%, but recently there have been instances where it was lowered by 1 to 2%.

Blurring of boundaries

As private equity funds invest in start-ups like venture capital, and venture capital invests in large-scale like private equity, there is a blurring of the boundaries between private equity and venture capital in the M&A market in Korea.

Overseas private equity

In particular, overseas private equity funds making inbound investments in Korea are displaying the following trends.

  • Overseas private equity funds are active in conducting not only large-scale investments and M&A, but also medium-scale and minority (pre-IPO) investments. In the past, overseas funds were mainly focused on control deals for the acquisition of management rights and were less attracted to minority investments, but there has been a turning of the tide on this point.
  • In executing investments in Korean targets, overseas funds are becoming more active in seeking joint investments with strategic investors rather than making unilateral investments. These joint investments are arranged by overseas funds that believe synergies can be formed between the strategic investor and the target, thereby increasing the value of their investment.
  • In selecting investment targets or conducting due diligence thereon, overseas funds are putting a spotlight on ABC (anti-bribery and corruption) and ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues. As ESG has become a central talking point in Korea, ESG matters have become key determinants in ascertaining the growth potential of investment targets.

Recently, more than 85% of private equity funds’ investment targets have been domestic companies, signalling a high concentration of investment in the domestic market. Among the industries of the investment targets, manufacturing (35.6%) and IT (19.5%) topped the list.

In the COVID-19 era, the distribution industry has seen an uptick in deal activity. Growth investments in the platform industry have been very active as well, as the industry is abuzz with pre-IPO minority investments by private equity funds.

The recent amendment of the FISCMA (discussed below) will have the most significant impact on private equity funds and transactions involving such funds in Korea.

Amendments to the Regulations on Private Equity Funds

Previously, the FISCMA distinguished private equity funds from hedge funds in the "private fund" category and allowed hedge funds to freely invest (except in the case of investments acquiring control over the target), while maintaining a complex regulatory matrix on permitted investment securities, methods and return periods for private equity funds. By way of example, private equity funds were only allowed to invest by participating in business management through the appointment of directors or investing in 10% or more of the shares of the investment target and were prohibited from investment by way of lending funds. Thus, the previous regulatory regime under the FISCMA had focused on the investment target and distinguished private funds thereby.

However, the FISCMA was amended on 20 April 2021 and the new law will take effect on 21 October 2021. Under the new FISCMA, private funds will be categorised as "general private funds" or "institutional private funds" and private equity funds under the previous law will transition into institutional private funds. Both types of private funds will be allowed to invest freely, but the scope of investors for institutional private funds will be limited to qualifying institutional investors, including financial companies and listed companies meeting certain requirements, and the offering procedure for general private funds, which will be open to individual and general investors, will become more rigorous. The most significant changes in the FISCMA amendment are therefore the change in regulatory framework from one categorising private funds based on the investment target to that of categorisation by type of investor, and the removal of restrictions on property management for private funds.

Consequently, from the above changes, the general partners operating private equity funds will be able to structure the management of such funds in various ways and so-called acquisition financing funds and mezzanine funds will also likely appear in the market. In the past, as investment by way of loans was not viable, private equity funds were restricted from being granted put options from the counterparties selling shares in M&A transactions. The restrictions were put in place because put options, exercisable in the amount of the purchase price multiplied by a certain interest rate, were regulated by supervisory authorities as they were deemed to be loans in substance. However, under the amended FISCMA, all such restrictions on property management will disappear.

Additionally, for institutional private funds, as investors that may take part in such funds are limited to financial companies, listed companies meeting certain requirements and other institutional investors, market entry of newly formed general partners that do not have ready access to such investors will become more impenetrable.

Under the current FISCMA, borrowing at the fund level is largely restricted and, as such, a private equity fund had to establish a special-purpose company to borrow funds and could not realistically borrow funds itself. However, the amended FISCMA has repealed the above restriction to allow for borrowing at the fund level.

Under the amended FISCMA, the number of investors that may invest in private equity funds is expanded from 50 to 100 and this expansion is interpreted as a regulatory easement.

Amendments to the Regulations on General Partners

The amended FISCMA additionally prescribes regulations on fund-managing personnel affiliated with the general partners to allow only those who are essentially in charge of the fund management duties at financial institutions or general partners to become fund-managing personnel. As the FISCMA to date had not specifically provided any restrictions on fund-managing personnel, the fund-managing personnel could consist of not only those essentially in charge of fund management, but also those related to the private equity fund’s investment target. For example, an unseasoned general partner seeking to form a project private equity fund to invest in a certain company may have those with industry experience in the target’s industry as fund-managing personnel as well. Pursuant to the amended FISCMA, such personnel can no longer become fund-managing personnel and only those directly responsible for the fund management may register as fund-managing personnel.

Additionally, regulations on general partners have been strengthened such that unlike in the past, where general partners were indirectly regulated by regulations on private equity funds, there will now be various regulatory mechanisms that take direct measures for inspection on general partners under the amended FISCMA. This change likely reflects the intent of the Korean supervisory authorities to further tighten the supervision on general partners henceforth.

Finally, as mentioned above, as new restrictions are imposed on the types of investors that can participate in institutional private funds (PEF), newly established general partners that cannot receive investments from such investors will find heightened barriers to market entry.

Lee & Ko

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Seoul 04532
Korea

+82 2 772 4805

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Law and Practice

Authors



Lee & Ko is Korea’s premier full-service law firm, and its private equity team is held in the highest regard for its ability to handle complex transactions for both domestic and overseas private equity funds. Since the introduction of regulations governing private equity funds in the early 2000s, Lee & Ko’s private equity team has been a pioneer in the field, having successfully advised on the formation of the first private equity fund in Korea. With the growth of the private equity market in Korea, Lee & Ko’s private equity team has grown into one of the largest and most trusted practices in the country. In recent years, Lee & Ko has garnered cutting-edge transaction experience and knowledge, having represented global and domestic private equity firms in some of the most high-profile mergers and acquisitions transactions in Korea.

Trends and Development

Authors



Lee & Ko is Korea’s premier full-service law firm, and its private equity team is held in the highest regard for its ability to handle complex transactions for both domestic and overseas private equity funds. Since the introduction of regulations governing private equity funds in the early 2000s, Lee & Ko’s private equity team has been a pioneer in the field, having successfully advised on the formation of the first private equity fund in Korea. With the growth of the private equity market in Korea, Lee & Ko’s private equity team has grown into one of the largest and most trusted practices in the country. In recent years, Lee & Ko has garnered cutting-edge transaction experience and knowledge, having represented global and domestic private equity firms in some of the most high-profile mergers and acquisitions transactions in Korea.

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