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[Editorial] Fund scandal

Legislation needed to block further abuses of entrusted money by citizens

Dec. 23, 2016 - 16:51 By 이현주
Investigators from the independent counsel have raided an office of the National Pension Service, playing a part in a variety of allegations stemming from President Park Geun-hye’s scandal.

The state-run fund operator is suspected of having offered an irregular favor to Samsung Group in return for the conglomerate’s donation to shady foundations. The entities were reportedly backed by Park or her civilian confidante Choi Soon-sil.

Last year, the NPS -- as a large shareholder -- voted in favor of the controversial merger between two Samsung units, a move assumed to have paved the way for Samsung heir apparent Lee Jae-yong to tighten his grip on core affiliates.

It is laudable that the independent counsel is moving to look into whether there was a behind-the-scenes deal between Cheong Wa Dae and the nation’s largest business group. The coming evidence could prove the corruption allegation that the suspended president was involved in a bribery scandal, as well as allowing Choi, who has never held a government position, to meddle in state affairs.

If investigators figure out that Choi took kickbacks “on the back of Cheong Wa Dae’s involvement,” Park could also face, alongside Choi, indictment after her departure from office and may be subject to a heavy jail term later.

The investigation into the NPS, on the other hand, should also be an occasion for the country to turn up the heat on big operators of citizens’ cash over possible improprieties.

Its reported behavior like a rubber stamp for the sake of chaebol frustrates sincere payers into the fund, involving salaried people who are obliged to pay monthly in the form of withholding taxes. Some individual shareholders of the Samsung units could see their interest harmed by the money they had paid due to an “irregular merger ratio” set by the conglomerate.

Betraying its prestige as the world’s third-largest pension fund, the NPS has lost its credibility among local citizens and stock investors.

The people worry their monthly receipts from the fund after retirement might fall short of the current estimate, suggested by the fund operator. Apart from the fast-aging society, their concern is attributable to symptoms that the operator is undermining its soundness by itself.

As for the Samsung merger, there was a report the NPS could possibly suffer up to 300 billion won ($252 million) in stock assessment. The warning came paradoxically from the internal staff of the fund, but decision-makers neglected it.

The sort of investment loss has been frequent, caused by a lack of independency from government controls and careless investment in financial markets at home and abroad.

Further, the NPS is one of the main funding sources for local institutional investors over their short sales on the Kospi and Kosdaq markets.

Short-sellers borrow stocks held by the state fund and arbitrarily pull down share prices. This undermines small investors, who are banned from short-selling in Korea.

The fund operator does not find any particular reason to hesitate to lend its stocks, as institutions pay service fees upon borrowing. However, glossing over their habitual short sales in abuse of the people’s money is an ethical breach.

It is undeniable that authorities -- including the Financial Services Commission and Ministry of Health and Welfare -- have turned a blind eye to the reckless short-selling and unfair game rule between institutions and individuals.

On the occasion of the administration’s scandalous crisis, the National Assembly needs to drastically revise laws and regulations on state pension funds. Further lax operations of the NPS -- whose assets stretch to 540 trillion won -- and some other public pension funds would seriously dent the capital market and social welfare in the coming years.

It is urgent to revamp the decision-making structure of the NPS. Currently, out of its 20 committee members, six are dispatched from ministries including the Finance Ministry.