The South Korean retiree, who in 2000 left a 16-year career as an import-export clothing trader, had been watching the country’s stock market surge from its March lows on a wave of easy money. “I was bored, and many people around me were making profits from stock trading,” says Kim, a wheelchair user and the grandfather of a toddler. “I was hoping to make some quick cash for my family and that I could use to travel or dine at nice restaurants.”
It was a text message promising “20% returns guaranteed” if Kim joined an online stock-tipping club that lured him back into the stock market. He took the plunge at the end of July, forking out the equivalent of $5,000 to join the club and placing a call to his broker for the first time in seven years. By late September, Kim had invested $30,000 of his savings into the market, based on the club’s tips. His portfolio was down 10%; the South Korean stock market was up by the same amount. “That stock-tipping club really fooled me by their impressive sales pitch and guarantee of profits,” he says.
Kim, who lives with his wife and one son in Yongin, a city south of Seoul, exemplifies the rush to stock trading by a new kind of retail investor in South Korea in 2020. Known as “ants” because they invest in colonies but have little influence on the big conglomerates that dominate the economy, small investors like Kim have entered the market as policymakers responded to the coronavirus pandemic with a flood of easy money. Central banks around the world, including the Bank of Korea, followed moves by the U.S. Federal Reserve in March to cut interest rates and buy bonds to stabilize markets.
The ants piled into tech stocks including Samsung Electronics Co. as well as biotech stars such as Celltrion Inc. that they thought might benefit from the Covid-spurred demand for drugs. They bought exotic derivatives. They smashed records for demand as they rushed into hot initial public offerings like that of Big Hit Entertainment Co., the agency that manages the K-pop boy band BTS.
By September, South Korea’s mom and pop investors made up 65% of South Korea’s stock market, up from 48% in 2019. Thanks in part to their enthusiasm, South Korea’s stock market was the biggest gainer last year, after Nigeria’s. South Korea’s rookie investors haven’t just invested in domestic shares. They jumped into derivatives such as over-the-counter retail forex products and, along with the rest of the world, Tesla Inc.
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