As the legal charges have been cleared for Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae-yong in a recent ruling, anticipation is growing that the tech giant will now go in search for mega mergers and acquisitions to secure future growth engines at full throttle.
The Seoul Central District Court this week acquitted Lee of charges including stock manipulation linked to the merger of two of Samsung affiliates in 2015.
In Korean business culture, legal risks surrounding a company's leader are often perceived as a key hurdle for a company before finalizing bold decisions like mega-sized acquisitions.
As for Samsung, rumors of a deal have been rampant, as the corporate giant itself has consistently said it would announce a big deal soon.
"The M&A environment is not better than before, but we are constantly reviewing to strengthen our existing businesses and discover future businesses," Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Han Jong-hee said in January. "We are well on the way to (preparing) a large M&A to strengthen Samsung's leadership, so we hope to have a plan for that this year."
M&As are seen as one of the key strategies for Samsung to strengthen its position to compete in the future. In January 2021, it promised it would pursue "meaningful" merger and acquisition deals by 2023, which, however, didn’t materialize.
It has forged small deals and made venture investments in more than 260 companies in the past three years, but industry observers believe it would have been difficult for Samsung to forge a big deal with Lee having to attend court hearings almost every week over the past three years.
The competitors have been spending large sums of money to expand their businesses. Intel acquired Israeli autonomous vehicle technology firm Mobileye for $15.3 billion in 2017. AMD, an AI chipmaker, bought Xilinx for $49 billion in 2022. Qualcomm also acquired Nubia for $1.4 billion.
Samsung reportedly has secured around 75 trillion won in cash and cash equivalents as of the end of the third quarter last year.
"The amount of Samsung's cash assets show that the company has not been able to invest properly and so has been hoarding cash," an industry official said.
Samsung's last big deal came in November 2016, when Samsung acquired Harman, a US based audio company, for $8 billion, with each share costing $112 at the time. That deal was one of the largest merger and acquisition deals in Korea.
Eight years have passed since the acquisition, and it has turned out to be a successful investment, logging a record profit of 1.17 trillion won for 2023. Harman is said to have paved the way for Samsung to mark its presence the fast-growing automotive industry.
As Samsung is one of the world's leading chipmakers, some of the potential candidates which Samsung may be interested in acquiring include automotive chipmakers like Infineon, based in Germany, and NXP, a Dutch firm.
Rumors have been rampant that Samsung may acquire ARM, a semiconductor intellectual property firm in 2022. But the scenario came unlikely after ARM went public on the Nasdaq in September last year.
Still, acquiring a fabless company is viewed as a good choice for Samsung, which aims to expand its foundry business, experts say.
"Samsung said it wants to become No. 1 in the foundry business by 2030, so acquiring a fabless company would help Samsung to take away market share from TSMC, which is currently the world's No. 1 foundry firm," an industry source said.
Samsung may also look into the growing artificial intelligence industry, robotics and advanced packaging fields, which can boost its main businesses, semiconductors, smartphones and home appliances.
Rainbow Robotics is considered one of the companies that Samsung could acquire soon. It is the first company to make humanoid robots in Korea and Samsung acquired a 14.83 percent stake in the company last year, in two equity investments.
It has been reported that Samsung might acquire the robot firm soon, changing its name to Samsung Robotics.
Samsung could also further expand its presence in the automotive market. On Wednesday, the top executives of Samsung affiliates including Samsung Electronics, Samsung Electro-Mechanics, Samsung SDI and Harman, met with General Motors Chair Mary Barra and discussed potential cooperation.
On Tuesday, Samsung Chair Lee took off on a business trip to the Middle East and Southeast Asia to inspect local operations and meet partners there.