(Bloomberg Businessweek) — Park Sunghyun and her husband sold their home in Seoul, moved into a rental apartment with their 7-year-old son, and plowed the family’s $230,000 of savings into shares of Tesla Inc.
They’re not alone in betting everything on Elon Musk’s electric-car maker. Throughout the pandemic, individual South Koreans thronged into Tesla stock, increasing their combined holdings more than a hundredfold, to exceed $15 billion. It makes them key stakeholders in one of the largest companies in the world by market value, with a collective share as big as those of Larry Ellison or US money manager T. Rowe Price Group Inc. They tend to be dip buyers who jump in when the stock retreats, helping curb declines.
But there’s an unhappy undercurrent to such enthusiasm: As South Korea’s wealth gap widens, many of these investors see risky bets on stocks and cryptocurrencies as their only realistic path to financial independence. Tesla is a favorite of retail traders worldwide, but Musk has generated a following in the country with something that approaches cultlike fervor among struggling wage earners. They call themselves Teslams, blending the words “Tesla” and “Islam” to show the strength of their faith in the company. Some sign off on tweets with the word “Temen,” their play on “Tesla” and “amen.”
Park and her husband—university graduates who landed jobs in the finance sector before marrying and starting a family—hadn’t planned on risking everything on Tesla. Then the already hot property market reached a boiling point when the central bank cut interest rates to a record low after the coronavirus outbreak began in 2020.
The couple had sold their home in late 2019, hoping to buy a bigger one, but were left stranded as prices accelerated beyond their borrowing capacity. The same story has played out in many countries recently, but it’s emblematic of South Korea, where the cost of apartments in the greater Seoul metropolitan area doubled over the past five years, outpacing pay increases by more than 80 percentage points. A typical three-bedroom apartment—the most popular size—costs 1.24 billion won ($924,235) in Seoul on average, according to Kookmin Bank.
“I thought I would live well by working at a good company after college, but the reality is that we are the poorest in our neighborhood,” says Park, 40, echoing the kind of frustration that helped inspire Netflix Inc.’s Korean drama . “Living as a salaried worker, there are so many limitations.”
Red flags abound. There’s Musk’s high-profile disputes with regulators; his on-again, off-again bid for Twitter Inc.; and the volatility it’s caused in Tesla’s share price. But investors such as Park find excitement in the drama. Although Tesla shares have dropped more than 25% from their 2021 high, they’re still up 1,900% over the past three years. That compares with an increase of about 40% for Samsung Electronics Co.—the most widely held stock in the country—and even less for Korea’s Kospi index.
“With this man, I thought we could go all-in,” says Park, who bought at an average price of $668 a share, well below the close of $870 on Aug. 22. She and her husband see Musk as a visionary who will succeed in continuing to effect change in the auto industry. “He’s doing things that nobody was thinking of before,” she says.
Individual Koreans held about 1.6% of the company’s equity as of Aug. 17, according to calculations by Bloomberg News based on data from Korea’s central securities depository. That’s more than their combined investments in Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft, and Nvidia, the data show. There are no official figures on the total holdings of US retail traders in Tesla, which is assumed to be larger given the bigger pool of investors in its home market. Giacomo Pierantoni, head of data at Singapore-based Vanda Research, estimates that individuals globally, excluding Musk and Ellison, own about 15% of the company.
The allure of Tesla is even stronger among people in their 20s and 30s who have fewer assets to start with than couples such as Park and her husband. Younger Koreans see little opportunity to follow their parents into the property market and are increasingly worried about repeating the financial struggles of their grandparents. Despite their lifetime of slogging that transformed the economy into an export powerhouse, elderly Koreans’ poverty rate is the highest among the 38 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“I fell into a panic that I might never be able to buy a house,” says Son Gilhun, a 27-year-old forklift driver who lives in Hanam on the southeast outskirts of the capital. “Instead of giving up, I decided to follow my older colleagues in buying stocks.” He gambled heavily on Tesla and amassed a stock portfolio worth about $100,000 during the pandemic by adopting a frugal lifestyle and channeling half his $2,000 monthly paycheck into equities. Son trimmed his Korean holdings and boosted his stake in the carmaker in June when the shares fell below $700. His immediate goal is to buy a Tesla and, if he can make enough money, eventually a house.
Musk’s recent sale of about 7.92 million shares—to accumulate cash before a trial that could force him to follow through on an agreement to acquire Twitter—has drawn mixed responses from the Teslams. Some vented their disappointment on social media. Others hoped for another dip-buying opportunity, which didn’t materialize. Son was sanguine, describing it as “not so desirable” but understandable given the situation with Twitter. Park was angry at first but is keeping faith with her choice. “Teslams like myself are not changing our investment,” she says. “We are staying firm.”