Airport stock sale: An old plan stirs a fresh furor

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Airport stock sale: An old plan stirs a fresh furor

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A view of Incheon International Airport. The terminal in the background opened in 2008 to serve passengers using some foreign airlines. [JoongAng Ilbo]


Incheon International Airport, the gateway to Korea, was named the best airport in the world for the sixth straight time this year, winning the annual Airport Service Quality award from the Airports Council International (ACI) last February. No airport had ever extended its winning streak to six years before Incheon pulled off the feat. It beat out the 1,700 airports surveyed around the world and it won over prominent rivals such as Singapore’s Changi Airport and Hong Kong International Airport. As of last year, it is the eighth-largest international airport in terms of passenger traffic and ranked second in international cargo processing.

But the airport is now at the center of political controversy because the administration and the ruling Grand National Party intend to sell 49 percent of the publicly owned airport to the public and foreign investors. That has stirred a debate about whether and why the airport should be partially privatized at all.

Speaking on the issue, Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan said at a National Assembly inspection of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance on Tuesday that the proceeds from the sale of the airport’s stake could be used to “make up for the country’s fiscal deficit.” The administration wants to achieve a balanced budget by 2013.

The Grand National Party leader Hong Joon-pyo suggested in August that Incheon International Airport be privatized and that a 15 percent share of the airport should be sold at a discount to the public in a bid to help low-income households. Hong’s idea is basically to redistribute national wealth to low-income households in order to reduce economic disparities among Koreans.

Hong’s thinking drew criticism from both the opposition parties and some academics. Dissenting politicians accused him of spouting populist ideas and called the plan a mere show to appease the public before the national and presidential elections next year. They also said it could result in an outflow of national wealth.

“There won’t be many low-income households who would be able to buy the shares,” said Kim Jin-pyo, floor leader of the largest opposition group, the Democratic Party.

“The idea of a public offering [by Hong Joon-pyo] means selling the shares at much lower price, and that cannot raise enough capital,” said Lee Yong-sup, the Democratic Party spokesman. “We need to remind ourselves that the international airports with high ratings, such as Hong Kong International Airport and Singapore Changi Airport, are 100 percent owned by governments.”

Hong in the past has also called for Woori Financial Group and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Maritime Engineering to be privatized and shares sold to the public at a discount. In those cases, he faced criticism that Woori and Daewoo were both already listed on the stock exchange, and that offering their shares at a discount would involve issues of fairness. Then he suddenly turned his attention to the privatization of the airport.

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Reasons for privatization

The administration has pushed the privatization of Incheon International Airport on the grounds that airport privatization is a global trend, as seen in the case of London Heathrow Airport and Sydney Airport in Australia. According to Hurr Hee-young, a business administration professor of Korea Aerospace University, 35 out of the 50 largest airports in the world are partially or fully privatized.

In 2003, Frankfurt International Airport and seven other international airports, including those in Hanover, Germany; Antalya, Turkey; Lima, Peru; New Delhi; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Xi’an, China were organized into a holding company called Fraport AG. The London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle airports also followed the leaders and were reorganized as groups. Singapore Changi Airport is also investing in other airports, although it is not privatized. Beijing Capital International Airport sold 43 percent of its stake; that airport has twice the capacity of Incheon Airport. Shanghai Pudong International Airport is also partially privatized.

“Some international airports invest in each other and collaborate in increasing air traffic by increasing the number of routes between them,” Hurr said. “It is similar to airlines that have code sharing to boost load factors.”

The administration also said the airport has to raise capital to expand its facilities, including building a second terminal, which is expected to cost trillions of won (billions of dollars).

In a recent interview, Lee Chae-wook, the chief executive officer of Incheon International Airport Corp., said, “For the airport to develop further, it should be able to adopt private sector know-how through a stake sale.”

“Incheon Airport was ranked No. 1 in service but it was not placed high in other areas,” Lee said. “The airport needs to invest in its facilities, systems and surrounding environment with capital raised through a share sale, in a bid to become No. 1 in other areas.”

Lee added that if the airport did not sell shares, it would need to borrow 4 trillion won ($3.7 billion).

“We haven’t discussed ways to sell shares to the public with the administration and the ruling party, but we intend to sell as much as a 20 percent stake to the public,” Lee said. “For low-income households, we’re considering a 30 percent discount on the sale.”

Over concerns on a potential outflow of national wealth, Lee said, “We limited foreign ownership to 30 percent; the stake that can be owned by a single investor is capped at 5 percent. Other shares will be sold through an initial public offering, so there is no worry about selling the shares too cheaply.”

A McKinsey report justified the privatization by saying the government needs to recoup its investment and to raise money for further investment in expanding the airport.

Mounting criticism

Attacks on the proposal have not been limited to politicians’ rhetoric. “Public corporations are privatized when it is either inappropriate for the government to operate them or the businesses they are in are market-oriented,” said Kim In-jae, a law professor at Inha University. “Incheon International Airport has been very successful. I don’t know why the administration wants to privatize it.”

The plan for the airport’s privatization has been raised before and shelved. Despite the fact that the administration champions it, opponents say privatization would only lead to higher fees for users and airlines while the quality of its service would decline.

“The purpose of private investors is to make profits,” Kim said. “Even building a runway needs an enormous investment. The question is whether private investors would be willing to make the necessary investments. Incheon is trying to become a Northeast Asian air hub but a privatized airport would invest as little as possible to make more money.”

Critics cite examples of cities where major international airports have been privatized, such as London, where they say users saw a worsening of services and increased fees as the airport pays huge dividends to investors. According to Kim, it took a longer time for the British airport to build a runway than it should have, and the airport started asking its employees to work longer hours.

According to Yoon Moon-gil, a business administration professor at Korea Aerospace University, Heathrow Airport charges passengers who want to go through an express line at immigration checkpoints. Frankfurt International Airport charges a 30 euro ($40.50) fee for each student coming to the airport for a field trip, a situation he calls a new burden on the public.

“The fact that the issue was brought up from a political point of view rather than an economic point of view is a problem,” Yoon said.

But Hurr said the problem is limited to Heathrow and the Sydney airport, which are fully privatized.

“Except for those two airports, major airports are only partially privatized,” Hurr said.

As an example, Hurr said, “Korea Electric Power Corp. was privatized, but it cannot raise electricity rates unilaterally. By the same logic, as long as the government holds a 51 percent stake in the Incheon International Airport, fee increases will not be an issue.”

Lee of Incheon International Airport Corp. agreed with Hurr. “We are very competitive and making profits. There is no need to increase fees,” he said. “Due to such concerns, we changed our rules so that any increase in airport and parking fees must be approved by the government.

Decade-long privatization talk

The idea of the airport’s privatization dates back to 1999 when the Incheon International Airport law was approved by the National Assembly. The airport, which cost 8.6 trillion won to build (including the initial construction between 1992 and 2001 and an expansion from 2002-8), is entirely owned by the government and is now under the supervision of the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs.

Even before the airport opened, there was a huge controversy about its ownership. This was right after the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, and there was pressure from the International Monetary Fund to privatize public corporations in return for bailouts.

“The privatization talk is based on neo-liberalism ideas,” Kim said. “At that time, privatization of public corporations was a major trend. However, it is different now. There are cases in which privatized public corporations have been renationalized.”

According to Kim, the Netherlands earlier tried to privatize Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, but it cancelled the plan.

The Incheon facility intends to expand its size to keep up with fast-growing air traffic. It will spend as much as 4 trillion won on the new expansion project in 2014 and 2015, but the administration still has no plan for how to raise the capital.

“The Incheon airport has 900 employees, and there are 35,000 people who work at the airport,” Hurr said. “It is an industry that can create a lot of jobs and have a huge impact on the economy. The airport needs to enter overseas markets, and the restrictions that bind the airport as a public company should be relaxed to be able to do that.”


By Limb Jae-un [jbiz91@joongang.co.kr]

한글 관련 기사 [뉴시스]

[이슈진단] '뜨거운 감자' 국민주 논란…인천공항 등 공기업 민영화 싸고 시끌

정치권을 중심으로 ‘국민주 방식’ 공기업 민영화에 대한 논쟁이 일어나면서 처서를 지나 더위가 한풀 꺾인 여의도를 다시 달아오르게 하고 있다.
정계뿐 아니라 경제계 학계 노동계 시민사회단체들까지 앞다퉈 각기 제 목소리를 내고 있어 열기는 더욱 뜨겁다. 특히 인천국제공항공사를 국민주 방식으로 민영화하겠다는 발언이 나오자 벌집을 쑤신 듯 말과 말들이 부딪치며 소란스럽다.

사회 일각에서는 벌써부터 “여야가 서로 당리당략에 따라 공기업 매각에 대해 의견대립을 지속하다 보면 기업의 논리는 사라지고 자칫 정치논리에 의해 경제의 최적화가 훼손될 우려가 높다”는 우려가 제기되고 있다.
국민주 방식이 무슨 의미를 지니고 있기에 이렇게 각계에서 첨예한 논란이 일고 있는 것인가, 한번쯤 들여다 볼 필요가 있다.

‘국민주 방식(People Sales)’이란 정부투자기관이나 공적자금을 투입한 기업을 민영화시키는 방법의 하나로 정부가 보유한 지분의 전부 또는 일부를 국민들에게 시가보다 할인된 가격으로 매각하는 것을 말한다. 이 방식은 정부보유 주식을 구입한 국민에게는 시세차익이 돌아가게 하고, 주식시장의 저변을 넓히는 동시에 기업의 소유권을 민간에 넘기는 민영화를 실현하는 것이다.

우리나라에서 국민주 1호는 1988년 공기업 민영화 실행으로 등장한 포항제철(포스코)이다. 당시 정부는 포스코 보유지분 69% 중 34%를 저소득층과 농어촌 주민 322만 여명으로부터 청약을 받아 매각했다. 이후 1989년에 실시된 한국전력 민영화도 국민주 방식으로 이뤄졌다.

23여년 만에 다시 국민주 방식이 등장한 것은 한나라당 홍준표 대표에 의해서였다. 홍 대표는 지난 7월13일 신임 당 지도부와 함께 청와대에서 열린 이명박 대통령과의 신임 오찬회동에서 대우조선해양과 우리금융지주를 국민주 방식으로 매각하는 안을 대통령에게 제안했다. 대통령과의 교감을 끝낸 홍 대표는 이후 적극적인 국민주 방식 홍보에 나섰다. 7월20일 당 최고위원∙중진의원 연석회의에서 그는 “공적 자금을 투입한 기업의 정부 보유 지분은 특정 대기업에 매각하는 것보다 국민주 방식으로 다수의 국민에게 돌려주는 게 맞다”고 밝혀 본격적인 공론화에 시동을 걸었다.

홍 대표는 이 자리에서 “포스코 주식을 국민주 방식으로 매각할 때 청약주식의 (공모가 대비) 할인율이 63.5%, 한국전력은 43.5%이어서 서민들에게 재산증식의 좋은 기회를 제공했다”고 덧붙였다. 홍 대표 측이 생각하는 대우조선해양과 우리금융지주의 국민주 공모의 내용을 보면 매각 주식 총량의 50%를 저소득층에, 20%는 우리사주조합에, 나머지 30%는 일반공모에 물량을 배정한다는 것으로 돼있다.
청약할인율은 30%로 두 기업의 매각 예상가액을 9조1610억원으로 보면 국민주 매각으로 회수하게 되는 금액은 6조4130억 원이다. 시가에서 할인(30%)한 금액 2조7480억원은 주식을 매입한 국민의 혜택으로 돌아가도록 하겠다는 게 홍 대표가 주장하는 국민주 방식의 핵심이라고 할 수 있다.

◇청와대·여권서도 찬반 반응 엇갈려

대우조선해양과 우리금융지주를 국민주 방식으로 민영화하겠다는 홍 대표의 제안에 대해 청와대와 여권의 반응은 찬반이 엇갈렸다. 전체적으로 처음엔 부정적인 입장을 보이다가 차츰 찬성하는 추세를 보이고 있다.

청와대 백용호 정책실장은 7월25일 한나라당과의 당정협의회에서 “국민주 방식은 포스코의 경우처럼 비상장회사를 새로 상장할 때 썼던 방법이며, 우리금융과 대우조선해양처럼 이미 상장된 회사의 주식은 정부가 다시 국민주 방식으로 매각하는 건 어렵다”고 밝혔다. 이미 상장돼 있는 회사의 주식을 국민주 방식으로 싸게 매각할 경우 이 물량이 시장에 나오면 주가가 떨어져 기존 주주들에게 피해를 줄 수 있다는 점을 들어 반대 입장을 편 것이다.
같은 당 유승민 최고위원도 반대하고 나섰다. 유 위원은 원내대책회의에서 “정치권이 매각 방식에 대해 자꾸 이야기 하면 정부가 운신의 폭이 줄어든다. 경영권을 사모펀드에 넘겨 제2의 론스타 사태가 발생하는 것을 걱정하는 건 이해하지만 경영권을 갖는 지배 대주주가 나타나도록 하는 것이 중요하다”고 말했다.

유 위원은 이어 “지난 17대 국회, 지난 정부에서도 못했던 문제를 한나라당이 무조건 포스코 방식으로 하라고 강제할 수는 없다”며 “정부지분 매각을 통해 공적자금 회수를 최대화해야 하는데 국민주 방식은 할인 매각이므로 이 요구를 충족시킬 수 없다”는 반대 이유도 내놨다.
정부 여당의 저항에 부딪혔지만 홍 대표 측은 국민주 방식을 견지했다. 공적자금 ‘최대 회수’ 원칙에 대해서도 “주식을 서민들에게 싸게 매각함으로 인해 공적자금을 최대로 회수하지 못하더라도 그만큼의 이익이 서민에게 돌아가게 되는 것”이라며 국가 전체로 보면 손실이 없다는 점을 강조했다.

대통령 측근에서 국민주 방식에 찬성하는 발언도 나와 홍 대표의 주장에 힘을 실어줬다. 이명박 대통령의 핵심참모의 하나로 꼽히는 곽승준 미래기획위원장은 7월29일 전경련 하계포럼에서 이뤄진 기자간담회에서 “국민주 매각은 안 된다고만 하지 말고, 뭐가 문제점이고 무슨 대안이 있는지 논쟁을 통해 해법을 찾아야 한다”고 말했다. “우량 금융기업인 우리금융지주를 사모펀드가 인수하는 것은 바람직하지 않으며, 국민주 공모 등 다양한 방식의 논의가 이뤄져야 한다”는 뜻을 밝힌 것으로 백 실장과는 다른 입장을 보인 것이다.

한편 우리금융지주와 대우조선해양을 국민주 방식으로 매각하자는 건의가 있은 직후 이들 기업의 주식을 갖고 있는 소액주주들은 크게 반발하고 나섰다. 네이버 주식 토론방에서 소액주주들은 “서민을 위한다는 국민주 방식 지분 매각이 주가만 떨어뜨려 기존 주주들에게 손해를 끼친다”는 내용의 댓글을 올리며 격렬한 반발을 보였다.(이하 생략)

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