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[Weekender] The golden dream: What it takes to be ‘rich’ in South Korea

Rich South Koreans diversify investment portfolios, expand into global markets

(123rf)
(123rf)

“Since I was a teenager, I have always dreamed of becoming rich. In my standard, having 10 billion won ($8.43 million) worth of assets could be considered rich but this goal is almost impossible to reach on an annual salary,” Park Jee-hye, a 33-year-old, said.

Eager to save at least 100 million won before her 30s, Park chose to get a job at a big firm, where she has saved about 200 million won so far. The real problem is where to park this amount, besides investing in stocks and funds.

The longtime dream of getting rich, she admitted, seems to be slipping through her fingers.

How much money does one actually need to be considered wealthy?

While “rich” is a relative term, a recent survey shows that, on average, South Koreans consider a person wealty when they have 4.65 billion won in assets.

According to the joint survey by online recruiting service providers JobKorea and Albamon of 2,020 adults between their 20s and 40s, male and female respondents said that the threshold for being considered “wealthy” was 5.23 billion won and 4.26 billion won, respectively.

About 85 percent of respondents described themselves as working class, poor or impoverished, while 11.3 percent said they belonged to the middle class. Also, the respondents cited their low salary as the No. 1 obstacle to their golden dream. Only 1.1 percent said they were wealthy.

Some blamed the Moon Jae-in administration’s toughest-ever real estate regulations and the constantly increasing housing prices as a hurdle to increasing financial assets.

The number of South Koreans with assets of over 1 billion won rose 4.4 percent on-year to 323,000 in 2018, and they held 54 percent of their total assets in real estate and 40 percent in financial assets, according to the KB 2019 wealth report.

This on-year increase was much lower than the previous figure of 14.4 percent. The total financial assets held by people with over 1 billion won also fell by 1.7 percent to 201.7 trillion won in the cited period, logging the first negative growth rate in five years.

Diversifying investment portfolios

Facing extensive regulations in the real estate markets and the prolonged low interest rates, an increasing number of people in Asia’s fourth-largest economy have turned to the stock markets.

As local retail investors flocked in looking for high returns, the balance of credit loans taken out by individuals for stock investments reached nearly 16.03 trillion won as of Wednesday, according to data from the Korea Financial Investment Association.

The figure was up by around 6.83 trillion won, or 74.13 percent, from the figure observed in the beginning of this year. The number also rose by more than 9.62 trillion won, or 150.21 percent, from the lowest balance of 6.41 trillion won on March 25.

Such market change reflected the desire of some investors with high-value assets to diversify investment portfolios as a risk distribution measure amid lingering uncertainties, according to Seo Jae-yeon, managing director of Mirae Asset Daewoo’s Galleria WM branch.
Mirae Asset Daewoo’s Galleria WM branch managing director (PB) Seo Jae-yeon (Mirae Asset Daewoo)
Mirae Asset Daewoo’s Galleria WM branch managing director (PB) Seo Jae-yeon (Mirae Asset Daewoo)
“Undergoing the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of clients tend to make investments in global markets, rather than the local market,” Seo told The Korea Herald in a recent interview. “Their investments are not just about stocks but alternative investment products such as gold, silver and oil.”

The senior private banking and wealth management expert currently has about 300 clients, with their accumulated asset value totaling around 200 billion won.

“I have always believed that stability is more important than return rate,” Seo said.

“Those aspiring to be rich tend to cling to how much profits they made from investments, but this is not the fastest track. Ironically, the sooner you let go of such obsession, the quicker you become rich.”

The expert also urged for patience and caution in the volatile coronavirus-affected stock markets.

“A rash investment decision may sometimes bring some profits but is likely to involve unwanted (opposite) outcomes,” the expert said.

“The answer is to keep patience. Take your time and look at the big picture.”

By Jie Ye-eun (yeeun@heraldcorp.com)
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