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Kakao Executive, Company Indicted for Alleged SM Entertainment Stock Manipulation Scheme (Report)

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In a stunning wrinkle in the fevered battle between Kakao Corp. and HYBE for a controlling stake in K-pop company SM Entertainment, Kakao’s chief investment officer was indicted Monday (Nov. 13) for allegedly manipulating the stock price to ward off HYBE’s rival bid.

Bae Jae-hyun, Kakao’s chief investment officer, will face a trial for violating South Korea’s Capital Markets Act, according to reports. He allegedly inflated the price of SM Entertainment shares by purchasing 240 billion won ($181.3 million) of shares while HYBE, home of K-pop group BTS, was attempting to buy a large stake in the company. Prosecutors also charged Kakao using a provision in the law that allows both a company and its employees to be punished.

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The scheme to manipulate SM Entertainment’s share price stemmed from a heated competition between Kakao and HYBE to become the largest shareholder in SM Entertainment — home to such K-pop acts as NCT Dream and Red Velvet — to help rebuild the company after it terminated a production contract with its founder, Lee Soo-man. In February, HYBE acquired a 14.8% stake in the K-pop giant from Lee and attempted to acquire an additional 25% stake through a tender offer at 120,000 won ($92.36) per share. HYBE’s bid was too low, however, and the tender offer gave HYBE less than 1% of outstanding shares.

Bae allegedly acquired SM Entertainment shares to drive up the price above HYBE’s tender offer price, thus thwarting its efforts to obtain a larger stake. On March 6, Kakeo and Kakao Entertainment followed with a tender offer of 150,000 won ($115.46) per share — 25% above HYBE’s tender offer price — and ended up acquiring an additional 25% stake, bringing its ownership of SM Entertainment to 40%. HYBE abandoned its bid to control SM Entertainment on March 13 and announced on March 28 that it would sell nearly half of its stake in SM Entertainment to Kakao for 248.8 billion won ($191.8 million).

Kakao is a South Korean tech conglomerate that owns the country’s dominant chap app, KakaoTalk, and a popular taxi-hailing app, Kakao Mobility, among other products. A subsidiary, Kakao Entertainment, owns Starship Entertainment, home to such K-pop groups as Monsta X, as well as South Korea streaming app Melon. In August, Kakao Entertainment and SM Entertainment revealed their plans to create a North American joint venture by the end of 2023.

The investigation into stock manipulation started soon after Kakao and Kakao Entertainment beat out HYBE for the SM Entertainment stake. South Korean officials raided the offices of Kakao and Kakao Entertainment on April 6 and SM Entertainment’s headquarters on April 18. Bae was arrested for suspected stock manipulation on Oct. 19 before being indicted on Monday. Other executives were suspected of working with Bae to inflate SM Entertainment’s share price, according to a Reuters article at the time of his arrest, but to date no one else has been charged.

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