Rich Koreans hand their kids millions to shield against estate taxes

A photo of Seoul Square in Seoul, South Korea on Feb 28, 2019. At least 19 children under 18 are listed as owners of shares. Their combined value: about US$29 million (S$39.4 million).
A photo of Seoul Square in Seoul, South Korea on Feb 28, 2019. At least 19 children under 18 are listed as owners of shares. Their combined value: about US$29 million (S$39.4 million).PHOTO: ARA ASSET MANAGEMENT LIMITED

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Some are barely old enough to walk and talk, much less understand the stock market. But thanks to South Korea's tax laws, a growing number of children as young as one are sitting on shareholdings collectively worth millions of dollars.

These rich kids are increasingly appearing on stockholder registries as the aging tycoons who fueled Korea's postwar industrialization shift their stakes to descendants to avoid inheritance taxes that can reach 50 per cent, the second-highest rate among OECD countries. By gifting shares now instead of passing them on at death, wealthy Korean families can legally cut their tax bills.

While similar tax-minimization strategies are common around the world, gifted shares in other countries are often managed through trusts until children reach adulthood. In Korea, where trusts offer few tax advantages and some tycoons are wary of relying on trustees from outside the family, the preference is to gift shares directly.

The result is a more transparent view of how the country's corporate elite are passing on their wealth to younger generations. At the 59 Korean business groups with assets exceeding 5 trillion won (S$5.88 billion), at least 19 children under 18 are listed as owners of shares, according to company filings compiled by Bloomberg. Their combined value: about US$29 million (S$39.4 million).

The biggest stake, worth about US$20 million, is held by a 15-year-old great-grandson of Huh Man-jung, the founder of refinery-to-retail conglomerate GS Holdings Corp. At Hansae Yes24 Holdings Co, a Seoul-based apparel maker, four kids between one and five years old have combined holdings of about US$1.3 million. Gifts to minors in Korea exceeded 1 trillion won for the first time in 2017, up 56 per cent from 2013, a ruling party lawmaker said in September, citing data he received from the National Tax Service.

Some have seized on the disclosures to argue that Korea isn't doing enough to combat income inequality. "It takes away hope for other youngsters," said Park Ju-gun, president of corporate research firm CEOScore. "Whatever efforts they make, they can't beat kids born rich."

Still, there's little sign that the government is in the mood to clamp down on dynastic wealth. A proposed revision to the tax code this year will, if passed, cut the rate of an additional inheritance levy on controlling stakes of companies.