Not all art provides an investment return, but it has paid off handsomely for the Lees. The family behind Samsung will cover part of a staggering inheritance tax bill by donating valuable paintings. How they will pay the remaining Won12tn ($11bn) triggered by the death of patriarch Lee Kun-hee is of greater relevance to non-family shareholders.
The Lees must have what art dealers flatteringly refer to as “an eye”. The collection includes masterpieces by Picasso, Monet, Chagall and Dalí and is estimated to be worth up to $3.5bn. After giving these to museums, the family may cover another slug of tax with loans against their stock holdings. Stake sales may be necessary too.
Alignment between the Lees and outside investors is imperfect. The family relies on particular subsidiaries to control the whole group. For example, Samsung vice-chair Lee Jae-yong, who is currently serving jail time, holds 17 per cent of the conglomerate’s de facto holding company Samsung C&T. That gives him an indirect stake in kingpin business Samsung Electronics. The IT business Samsung SDS, lacking the same indirect sway as its stablemate, is more likely to be sold off.
An easier way for the Lees to pay the balance of the tax bill would be to increase dividends from Samsung group companies. Lex calculates the family received payouts worth about $1.3bn based on their holdings in all group companies last year. There is plenty of firepower left. Samsung Electronics alone, which accounted for most of last year’s payout, had more than $26bn in cash and equivalents at the end of 2020.
Strong earnings should increase that. Samsung Electronics lifted first-quarter profits by 46 per cent, beating expectations. The stay-at-home trend has stimulated demand for nearly everything the company makes — from smartphones to home appliances
Samsung Electronics should now be able to capitalise on a surge in chip demand. Its Austin, Texas plant resumed normal operations this month. As production ramps up, deferred earnings will flow.
The Samsung group, historically sparing with dividends, may give all shareholders a windfall because the Lee family needs one. As for art collecting, the strength of Samsung’s smartphone business means the family should soon have resources to replace the art they are currently giving away. Wily art dealers will doubtless discern as good “an eye” in the younger generation of Lees as in the old one.
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