SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, the Saudi crown prince and a $22 billion test of values

by Yuji Nakamura and Peter Elstrom

Bloomberg, AFP-JIJI

Masayoshi Son has already paid a price for his close ties to Saudi Arabia. It could soon go much higher.

Shares in Son’s SoftBank Group Corp. plummeted the most in more than two years Monday after Saudi Arabia came under fire for the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The kingdom is the biggest outside investor in SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund, which has backed Uber Technologies Inc., WeWork Cos., Didi Chuxing and Slack Technologies Inc.

Saudi Arabia is considering an admission that Khashoggi died during an interrogation that went wrong during an intended abduction after he entered the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate to sort out marriage paperwork on Oct. 2., CNN reported Monday.

However, one CNN source cautioned that the report was still being prepared and could change, while another said it will likely conclude the operation took place without clearance and that those involved will be held responsible.

The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, said the kingdom is weighing whether to say that rogue operatives killed Khashoggi by mistake during an interrogation. The Journal, like CNN, said the Saudi statement had not been finalized.

The U.S. is pressing for an explanation, while business leaders, including the CEO of Uber, have pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s “Davos in the Desert” event. SoftBank’s Monday plunge brings the decline in its market value from a September peak to $22 billion.

U.S. President Donald Trump dispatched Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to Saudi Arabia to meet the nation’s king and suggested “rogue killers” might be behind the incident.

The trouble for Son is that his grand vision depends on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who pledged $45 billion for the Vision Fund after a 45-minute pitch from Son and has promised a similar amount for the next fund. Not only are those commitments now in question, but SoftBank could face a revolt in Silicon Valley if entrepreneurs begin to think taking its cash is akin to blood money.

“If the Saudis are implicated in the murder, you might find a lot of investors not willing to take their money,” said Chris Lane, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “This could start to freeze the Vision Fund out of future deals. This also potentially puts Vision Fund II at risk.”

SoftBank shares had gained 29 percent this year through Sept. 28 as investors began to credit Son for his ambitious investments in technology startups in the U.S., China and beyond. But the stock has tumbled 19 percent since then amid the Saudi controversy and a broad decline in technology shares, including a 7.3 percent drop Monday.

A spokesman for SoftBank declined comment. Saudi Prince Mohammed has said Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed, but Saudi officials have given no evidence to back up that assertion.

On Monday, Amir Anvarzadeh, a senior strategist with Asymmetric Advisors in Singapore, removed SoftBank from his list of recommended stocks to buy. In a research note, he explained the risks of the Saudi controversy and the tech stock rout.

“Although we don’t expect this latest diplomatic incident to lead to any sanctions on Saudi, there is always some possibility that some firms will pull out their money from the Vision Fund,” Anvarzadeh wrote. “However, we are starting to worry about other more likely scenarios that could prove as disruptive to Son’s plans. Firstly and most importantly, we believe tech names will remain under selling pressure.”

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo, said SoftBank could see its reputation take a hit with technology startups if the Saudi regime is found culpable. Tech workers have increasingly pressured employers to steer clear of relationships they see as politically compromised. Google, for example, decided not to renew a contract with the U.S. Defense Department after protests from employees.

“Son is going to find a chillier welcome in Silicon Valley,” Kingston said. “The whole ethos of these young venture capitalists is they want to make the world a better place. That’s hard to reconcile with the vision of darkness that Saudi Arabia is projecting.”

If a boycott materializes, it could prove a serious setback. Son has made venture investments for decades, dating back to early bets on Yahoo Inc. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. He began stepping up his technology investments last year as he raised the first Vision Fund and explained he sees unprecedented opportunities in artificial intelligence, autonomous driving and other technologies.

He has grabbed the biggest equity stakes in many of the world’s most prominent startups, including Uber, and confounded Silicon Valley rivals with his unprecedented deal-making. In an interview with Bloomberg last month, he said he plans to raise a new $100 billion fund every two or three years. His goal is to give entrepreneurs the opportunity to compete with unlimited amounts of money.

“Capital is not the only thing, but I can help entrepreneurs accelerate,” he said. “I can help make it a bigger success, I can stimulate.”

Kingston said founders will be watching how Son handles the Saudi situation. Although the investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance is ongoing, his decisions now will weigh on future opportunities.

“This is a real litmus test for Son and for the entire Silicon Valley culture that he has helped fund,” he said. “It’s a watershed moment. Who are we?”