South Korea has been one of the most impressive performers among emerging market economies over the past 50 years. Rising wages and an aging workforce could slow growth, but the country’s overall outlook is positive. Unification with North Korea could significantly accelerate growth, although that kind of reconciliation is unlikely in the near-to-medium term.
Here is one ETF that provides exposure to the top South Korean stocks.
ISHARES MSCI SOUTH KOREA ETF $60.76(New York symbol EWY; TSINetwork ETF Rating: Aggressive; Market cap: $3.4 billion) tracks the performance of the largest publicly listed South Korean companies.
Technology companies account for 41% of its assets, followed by Financial Services (14%), Consumer Cyclical (10%), Industrials (9%) and Basic Materials (8%).
The ETF holds a portfolio of 115 stocks; the top 10 make up 47% of its assets. They include Samsung Electronics (technology; 22.8%), SK Hynix (technology; 5.5%), Celltrion (healthcare; 2.6%), KB Financial (financial services; 2.6%), and POSCO (basic materials; 2.6%).
Samsung Electronics’ high weighting in the ETF creates significant company-specific risk for the overall portfolio.
However, the company is a diversified electronics conglomerate that manufactures and sells a wide range of products, including smartphones, semiconductor chips, printers, home appliances, medical equipment, and telecom network equipment. Samsung continues to report steady earnings from its Galaxy phones and computer chips.
The ETF started up in May 2000 and charges an MER of 0.59%. The average $179.5 million in units trading daily provides strong liquidity.
The fund has a p/e of 6.1 based on the forward earnings of the stocks it holds. The ETF pays a fluctuating annual dividend. In 2017, the dividend amounted to $2.176 a unit for a yield of 3.6%.
Korea was occupied by Japan in 1905 but regained its independence following Japan’s surrender to the U.S. in 1945. After the Second World War, a democratic-based government was set up in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula while a communist-style government was installed in the north. Following the Korean War (1950-53), the Peninsula was split along a demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel.
South Korea held its first free presidential election under a revised democratic constitution in 1987, with former army general Roh Tae-woo winning a close race. President Park Geun-hye took office in February 2013 as South Korea’s first female leader, although she was later impeached by the National Assembly. That triggered an early presidential election in May 2017. Moon Jae-in is the current president.
After the war with North Korea, South Korea emerged as one of the 20th century’s most remarkable economic success stories, becoming a developed, globally-connected, high-technology society within decades.
In the 1960s, GDP per capita was on par with levels in the poorest countries in the world, but by encouraging saving and investment over consumption, and by directing resources to export-orientated industries, the economy started to flourish late in the decade. Successful family-controlled businesses (chaebols) such as Daewoo, Hyundai, and Samsung further boosted economic growth.
With annual economic growth rates regularly reaching double digits in the late 1960s and 1970s, South Korea ascended to the ranks of advanced economies by the mid-1990s. However, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 hit the country’s leading companies hard because of their excessive reliance on short-term borrowing. Gross domestic product plunged by 7% in 1998 and the country had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.
South Korea tackled difficult economic reforms following the crisis, including restructuring some chaebols, increasing labour-market flexibility, and opening up to more foreign investment and imports. The economy also began expanding its network of free-trade agreements to help bolster exports. Korea has since implemented 16 free-trade agreements covering 58 countries, including the U.S. and China.
Economic growth has averaged a high 5.5% annually over the past 30 years, but has slowed down to 3.0% over the past five years as the economy matured. The IMF expects growth of 2.8% for 2018 followed by 2.6% growth in 2019. The economy is made up of services (58%), industrial production (39%), and agriculture (2%).
The Korean won is a free-floating currency and experienced considerable volatility during the 1998 Asian crisis and the global financial crisis in 2008-09. However, the won has been relatively stable against the U.S. dollar since 2010.
South Korea emerged from a period of political turmoil with the May 2017 election of Moon Jae-in as country president. He became the first liberal leader in nine years, after former president Park Guen-hye was removed from office. She faces a number of criminal charges.
In June 2018, U.S. President Trump met in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. If nothing else, the meeting has helped ease friction between North Korea and the U.S. but also the two Koreas.
Meanwhile, the South Korean economy should also benefit from an expected rise in visitors from China. Tensions between the two nations—following the U.S. installation of a missile defense system in South Korea—have now eased. At the same time, though, the trade war between the U.S. and China continues to affect all Asian countries.
Over the past year, the ETF lost 15.8% compared to the 1.0% loss of the broad-based MSCI World Equity Index. Over the past five years, the ETF has gained 4.8%—well behind the 38.0% rise for the MSCI World Equity Index. Still, that period has been difficult for emerging markets, and South Korea’s performance is about average.
For aggressive investors seeking exposure to South Korea, the iShares South Korea ETF is a buy.
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