Global ratings firms were in a flap on Friday after Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong was sentenced to five years in jail, with conspiracy theories flying around Korea that foreigners are trying to talk down the country's most valuable shares.
Standard & Poor's said Friday it is maintaining Samsung Electronics' AA- rating, while Fitch kept its A+ rating, but both kept their outlook at stable rather than reflecting the unprecedented boom in semiconductor sales.
And both S&P and Fitch had a pessimistic long-term outlook. "Chances are the company may fail to clinch possible mega deals if Lee has to serve a longer-than-expected prison term in the upcoming Supreme Court's final verdict, as it is likely to delay the firm's key strategic decisions," S&P said.
Fitch said, "If the vacuum persists for a longer period of time, this will put the firm's business agility at risk particularly in its technology and capital-intensive businesses -- such as semiconductors."
But they predicted no major disruptions to Samsung's day-to-day operations over the short term because its business divisions are managed by competent specialists with years of experience, while the company's semiconductor division remains extremely profitable and has posted record earnings each quarter.
Some analysts are worried that Samsung's core competitiveness could be weakened by the prolonged leadership vacuum. Although Samsung Electronics boasts the highest global competitiveness in the semiconductor industry, the situation may change as Chinese rivals are catching up quickly in terms of display and smartphone technologies.
Samsung rose to the top of the global TV industry in 2006, but total output in the second quarter this year fell 6.9 percent on-quarter, with global market share falling below 20 percent for the first time in a decade.
The company's share in the global smartphone market is shrinking as China's Huawei, Oppo and Vivo grab bigger slices of the market.
Samsung has already lost its top spot in China's massive smartphone market, plunging from 20 percent in 2013 to just three percent in the first quarter of this year.
The question is whether Samsung can respond swiftly in upcoming IT downcycles or times of crisis. Its semiconductor, smartphone and TV/home appliance divisions are currently led by different CEOs and operated as separate entities. If Lee, who is the sole lynchpin linking them, is absent for years, Samsung may not be able to react.
Kim Byung-do at Seoul National University said, "The absence of clear leadership that could mediate and fine-tune coordinated responses is the biggest crisis Samsung faces."