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Samsung unit faces potential criminal probe after breaking accounting rules

Seoul

SAMSUNG Group's biotechnology unit is facing a potential criminal investigation and delisting after South Korea's financial regulator said that the company "intentionally" violated accounting rules surrounding an initial public offering.

A securities panel of South Korea's Financial Services Commission (FSC) said that Samsung Biologics Co deliberately overstated the value of affiliate Samsung Bioepis ahead of its IPO in 2016, which raised about US$2 billion. The regulator fined Samsung Biologics eight billion won (S$9.7 million) and recommended that the company dismiss its CEO.

FSC vice-chairman Kim Yong Beom said in his briefing that it would ask prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation into the accounting violations while stock trading of Samsung Biologics will be halted. The company will also be under review for delisting. Mr Kim said no companies have been delisted on accounting issues in South Korea so far.

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The scandal is the latest involving a Samsung Group unit, after Jay Y Lee, vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics Co, was jailed for bribery and released earlier this year. The case threatens to be another potential black eye for the country's biggest chaebol and may resurrect calls for better corporate governance.

Samsung Biologics, in an e-mail statement, expressed regret over the financial regulator's ruling, saying it was confident that the company did not violate accounting standards. Samsung Biologics said it will file an administrative lawsuit against the decision.

"I don't think this issue will end in the short term," said Park Sung Shin, fund manager at KTB Asset Management in Seoul. "The issue will be sent to prosecutors, and there is uncertainty whether it will have an impact on the succession issue of Samsung Group." Samsung Biologics may also see headaches with its earnings.

"The possibility of delisting is extremely low," said Han Byung Hwa, analyst at Eugene Investment & Securities. "But uncertainties will remain because of some issues such as possible revisions of its financial reports."

The company has lost US$10 billion in market value since it disclosed in May that its accounts were being audited. On Wednesday, its market cap was at US$19.5 billion as its shares rose 6.7 per cent before the announcement was made.

The country's financial watchdog began auditing Samsung Biologics last year after several lawmakers and a civic group accused the company of improperly changing its Bioepis unit to an affiliate status, a move that they said inflated the company's value ahead of the IPO. Critics also accused Samsung Group of orchestrating the accounting change to benefit the merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries, which bolstered Samsung heir Mr Lee's succession plans.

Samsung Biologics has said its financial books were verified by outside accounting firms and fully reflected accounting standards in 2015. The company said it had no reason to "intentionally" manipulate the financial numbers. BLOOMBERG