Investors in South Korea's two best-known blue chips have scant reason for cheer these days. The leading icon of Korean corporate success, Samsung Electronics, appears headed for a third straight year of falling profits as a result of the crash in memory-chip prices. And growth at Hyundai Motor Co. has stalled as Korea's surging currency has erased most of the automaker's cost advantage vis-à-vis its Japanese rivals.
Time to bail out of the Korean stock market? Investors don't seem to think so. The Seoul exchange's benchmark KOSPI index has surged 34% so far this year despite the U.S. credit crunch. The chief attraction: Korea's steel mills, shipbuilders, petrochemical operations, and other smokestack industries. Shares of petrochemical producer LG Chem Ltd. and steelmaker Posco have more than doubled. And Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. (the world's largest shipbuilder, which split from Hyundai Motor Co in 2002) has tripled. Samsung's shares, meanwhile, are down by 13% this year and Hyundai Motor's are up just 5%. "Forget about the Digital Era and fancy marketing," says Park Kyung Min, chief executive at Seoul-based fund manager Hangaram Investment Management. "It's all China and emerging markets."
In the late '90s, Korea's old industrial sector seemed like deadweight when compared with the country's booming technology companies. Its foundries and petrochemical operations epitomized the debt-fueled expansion that wounded Korea in the 1997 Asian foreign exchange crisis. No other country poured as much money into production facilities, and many basic industries became hopelessly oversupplied. Korea in 1998 had nearly 50 million tons of steel production capacity, about double domestic demand. Two sprawling new Korean ethylene plants added to a global capacity glut. And all of Korea's major shipyards built new dry docks even as rivals fretted about oversupply.
These days, though, all that investment is looking mighty smart. With emerging economies booming, the gluts have changed into shortages, and Korea has ready capacity to crank out steel, container ships, and the plastics needed for everything from MP3 players to car bumpers. Shipbuilders Hyundai Heavy, Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI ), and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering all now have nearly four years of order backlogs as shippers cater to ballooning trade between China and the rest of the world. And in the first eight months of this year, exports of steel leapt by 26%, ships and heavy machinery such as bulldozers by 25%, and petrochemicals by 22%. "China certainly was a factor in freeing us from debt and starting a virtuous circle of profits and growth," says Kim Tae Han, strategy chief at Samsung Total Petrochemicals Co., an affiliate of Samsung Group now half-owned by French oil giant Total (TOT ). Its profit in the first half of 2007 climbed 16%, to $250 million, on sales of $1.8 billion, up 3.3% from a year earlier. Since 1999, the company's exports—mostly to China—have jumped by 240%, to $2.3 billion last year.
That's not to say Korea felt no pain in the intervening years. Companies that were leveraged to the hilt folded or were sold. Hyundai Petrochemical Co., which found itself $2.9 billion in debt after building a new ethylene plant, went into receivership in 2001, while Hanbo Steel went bankrupt in 1997 after racking up $4.4 billion in debt. Yet many factories that failed were so high-tech that no one dared scrap them. Hanbo, for instance, was bought by the company now known as Hyundai Steel in 2004 for $750 million—one of three failing mills Hyundai has taken over since 2000. "The financial crisis was a huge opportunity for us to buy modern facilities on the cheap," says Kim Sang Gyu, business strategy chief at Hyundai Steel, an affiliate of the automaker and now Korea's second-largest steel producer. Sales jumped 38% in the first half, to $4 billion, while exports soared 47%, to $950 million.
With China and the Middle East building basic industries like crazy, Koreans know the current boom won't last forever. But for now, they're happy to fall back on their smokestack companies while the erstwhile stars ride out the turmoil in the U.S. and the developed world. Says economist Lim Kyung Mook at Korea Development Institute, a government-funded think tank: "The economy is much more balanced and healthier now."
By Moon Ihlwan