Hedge fund’s $1B Hyundai buy adds to company’s battles

Scott Deveau
Bloomberg News

Elliott Management Corp., the sometimes-activist hedge fund run by billionaire Paul Singer, said it’s bought a more than $1 billion stake in several Hyundai Motor Group entities and is calling for a clearer plan to improve operations.

The New York-based hedge fund praised the auto conglomerate for simplifying its ownership structure last month after drawing criticism from corporate-governance activists for years. Still, Elliott called the moves a “first step” and said it’s looking forward to meeting with management about the group’s issues.

“More needs to be done to benefit the companies and stakeholders,” the firm said in a statement. “Elliott calls on management to share a more detailed road map as to how it will improve corporate governance, optimize balance sheets, and enhance capital returns at each of the companies.”

The changes at Hyundai follow similar overhauls by other conglomerates in Korea including national icon Samsung Group, which Elliott has also taken on. Hyundai, a cars-to-steel giant, has been chided for years by shareholder activists such as Kim Sang-jo, who’s now head of the Fair Trade Commission that oversees the nation’s conglomerates.

Kim has said family-run empires, known as chaebols, should untangle cross-shareholdings that obfuscate their ownership structures. His commission welcomed Hyundai’s plan announced last week.

Elliott said its holdings were in car manufacturers Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp., as well as parts maker Hyundai Mobis Co. Shares of all three companies have trailed the benchmark Kospi index since the beginning of last year.

A representative for Elliott declined to comment beyond the statement. A spokesman for Hyundai wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Hyundai Motor has been struggling in China, the world’s biggest auto market, amid a consumer backlash over political tensions between the country and South Korea. Sales also have been slipping in the U.S. due to a dearth of the sport utility vehicles American consumers are demanding at the expense of sedans.

In 2016, Elliott took a stake in Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and advocated for the company to split into two and add new directors to its board, among other changes. Samsung rejected most of the demands but offered in April 2017 to pay its first-ever quarterly dividend and cancel tens of billions of dollars in treasury shares.

Elliott also took a stake in Samsung C&T Corp. in 2015 in an attempt to block its proposed takeover of Cheil Industries Inc., arguing the deal undervalued the conglomerate. The South Korean courts rejected Elliott’s attempts to halt stock sales related to the deal, paving the way for the merger to go through.

In the aftermath, prosecutors started investigating whether payments made to entities controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a confidant of the country’s then-President Park Geun-hye, helped Samsung win support for the merger. Park was impeached and removed from office as part of a corruption scandal that engulfed the entire country from late 2016.