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SoftBank’s first Vision Fund may be its last after $18 billion loss

Masayoshi Son said he believes that the economic shock of the coronavirus could end up helping technology companies in fields from ride-hailing to artificial intelligence.

Bloomberg|
Last Updated: May 19, 2020, 09.28 AM IST
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AFP
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Son famously lost about $70 billion during the dot-com bust, as startups cratered and his stock price crashed. He said the current downturn is nothing compared to that, when he was holding on by two fingers.
By Pavel Alpeyev

Before the meltdown at WeWork and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Masayoshi Son said he would like to raise a new Vision Fund every two to three years after his initial $100 billion fund. Now the first Vision Fund looks like it could be the last.

SoftBank Group Corp. said Monday the Vision Fund lost $17.7 billion in the most recent fiscal year, triggering the worst loss ever in the Japanese company’s 39-year history. SoftBank had to write down the valuations of companies like WeWork and Uber Technologies Inc. because of business missteps and the coronavirus fallout. Its return on the fund is negative 6%, compared with 62% just a year ago, he said.

Son conceded he is unlikely to be able to draw outside investors for another Vision Fund, an initiative that he once proclaimed the future of SoftBank as it moved away from the telecom business. The Tokyo-based company will keep making startup investments with its own money, albeit more cautiously than in the past. About 15 of the fund’s startups will likely go bankrupt, he said, while another 15 are likely to thrive.

“Vision Fund’s results are not something to be proud of,” Son said at an unusual press conference in Tokyo, with reporters and analysts calling in remotely because of the pandemic. “If the results are bad, you can’t raise money from investors. Things aren’t good, that’s why we are investing with our own money.”

Son also announced Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., will leave the SoftBank board after 13 years and that his company may not pay a dividend this year to preserve cash.

The 62-year-old billionaire, dressed formally for the occasion in a dark suit, white-striped shirt and blue tie, was far more somber than in the previous earnings conference. In March, he declared the tide was turning for SoftBank after the setbacks at WeWork.

On Monday, Son conceded he had not anticipated how the global economy would be affected by the fallout from Covid-19.

“At that time many people could not see that the coronavirus pandemic would spread that far,” he said. His presentation was full of dark slides that highlighted comparisons between now and the Great Depression, when it took years for economic activity to recover. SoftBank wrote WeWork’s valuation down again, this time to $2.9 billion or more than 90% less than its peak.

Son is racing to put his house in order to withstand the challenges. On Monday, SoftBank also detailed plans to shore up its balance sheet and its stock price, part of a plan to sell 4.5 trillion yen in assets.

The company raised $11.5 billion from contracts to sell shares in Alibaba, its most valuable holding. SoftBank is likely to sell stock in its Japanese telecom unit SoftBank Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc. SoftBank Group plans to seek buyers for shares of T-Mobile US worth about $20 billion, Dow Jones reported.

The Japanese company also said on Monday it plans to spend up to 500 billion yen to buy back shares through next March, on top of an existing repurchase plan of the same size. That has helped SoftBank shares stabilize, rising more than 75% from their low in March. The stock climbed 2.2% in Tokyo on Tuesday, as Japan’s indexes rose.

"SoftBank Group’s massive buyback remains the most important source of good news and tailwind for” the shares, Atul Goyal, senior analyst at Jefferies Group, wrote in a report.

SoftBank did not give a dividend forecast for the first in its history, saying it may not pay one this year. “Just in case we need more financing,” Son says.

Separately, SoftBank said Ma will step down as a director as part of several planned board changes. Three new directors have been nominated, including SoftBank Chief Financial Officer Yoshimitsu Goto. Lip-Bu Tan and Yuko Kawamoto will join, bringing the total of external board members to four. Kawamoto will be the first female director.

Son’s increasingly risky bets over the past few years coincided with departures from SoftBank’s board of some of its most outspoken members. Shigenobu Nagamori, the founder of motor maker Nidec Corp., stepped down in 2017, while Fast Retailing Co. Chief Executive Officer Tadashi Yanai left last December.

“With no famous outside directors left on SoftBank’s board, it’s not clear who is going to hold Son responsible anymore,” said Masahiko Ishino, an analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Center.

Son did not back away from continuing to make startup investments, although it will be with his own money for the foreseeable future. He said he believes that the economic shock of the coronavirus could end up helping technology companies in fields from ride-hailing to artificial intelligence.

“I believe this shock will only accelerate the paradigm shift,” he said.

Son famously lost about $70 billion during the dot-com bust, as startups cratered and his stock price crashed. He said the current downturn is nothing compared to that, when he was holding on by two fingers. Now, he has a more stable balance sheet and billions in assets he could sell if need be.

“Compared to the past crisis, this time I am just looking down on the bottom of the valley from above,” he said.

Indeed, he encouraged investors to think through the implications of the Vision Fund’s end. Even if the fund is worth zero, SoftBank has stakes in Alibaba, SoftBank Corp., T-Mobile US and others that are worth about double its market value.

“Even in the worst case scenario, the risks Son has taken will not sink his company,” said Jusuke Ikegami, a professor at Waseda Business School in Tokyo.

He offered no assurances that his startups will recover. In fact, he reckons Vision Fund company valuations are more likely to go down than up.

Still, Son didn’t concede that the Vision Fund is a bust. He said SoftBank anticipates it will be able to pay a 7% return to limited partners who hold about $40 billion in preferred stock.

Pressed for some view of the future, Son said that he still thinks he could see a 20% internal rate of return on Vision Fund investments. Now is the worst possible time but in five or ten years, things may look different. He could even approach outside investors about future funds.

“The situation is exceedingly difficult,” Son said. “Our unicorns have fallen into this sudden coronavirus ravine. But some of them will use this crisis to grow wings.”

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