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While Enron will forever remain the American archetype of corporate malfeasance, in South Korea that dubious distinction goes to Daewoo.
Following the dramatic implosion of the Daewoo corporate empire in 1999, which culminated in founder Kim Woo-Jung's 2006 imprisonment on charges of fraud and embezzlement, the shipbuilding segment of the conglomerate was spun off as a separate, state-controlled entity. Nine years later, South Korea is ready to return the world's third-largest shipbuilder to the private sector, and Asia's third-largest steelmaker is intent on offering the highest bid.
POSCO (NYSE: PKX ) has been on a growth-focused tear lately. Following ArcelorMittal's (NYSE: MT ) lead, the company has made major strategic upstream investments in companies like Australia's Macarthur Coal to secure critical resources. To expand production, the company is building a steel mill in Vietnam and recently obtained permission to proceed with a $12 billion steel plant project in India. By bidding for Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME), POSCO forges a cunningly bold move downstream to become its own end-user.
POSCO is already the leading supplier of steel plates to South Korea's bustling shipbuilding industry, and views the purchase of DSME as necessary for the company's growth. To help silence critics of the move, the company has signed a letter of intent to acquire iron ore, steel mill, and shipbuilding assets from an unidentified company in the Ukraine.
Although continued demand for new oil tankers from companies like Frontline (NYSE: FRO ) , and for drybulk carriers from companies like Diana Shipping (NYSE: DSX ) and Eagle Bulk Shipping (Nasdaq: EGLE ) provide incentive enough to own shipbuilders, POSCO intends to take DSME in a different direction. If its bid is successful, POSCO would focus on more complex constructions, like drilling ships and offshore oil platforms. Rig operators like Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) and voracious end-users like Brazil's Petrobras (NYSE: PBR ) could stand to benefit from increased global production capacity for these items.
While I would like to see POSCO remain focused on achieving its goal of having 30% of raw materials come from mines in which the company holds a stake, POSCO's dive into a molten hot shipbuilding industry is a fascinating development for this storied steelmaker.