Business / Corporate

SoftBank's Son says it's business as usual after record loss, but Tokyo traders aren't buying it

by Pavel Alpeyev

Bloomberg

Masayoshi Son wants investors to believe that a record loss from investments in money-losing startups WeWork and Uber Technologies Inc. is but a bump in the road. Some aren’t buying it.

SoftBank Group Corp.’s shares fell as much as 4.2 percent in Tokyo trading on Thursday morning, the biggest intraday decline in about six weeks. The conglomerate recorded an operating loss of ¥704.4 billion ($6.5 billion) after writedowns in WeWork and other investments, its first such loss in 14 years and the biggest quarterly shortfall ever. The $100 billion Vision Fund, the unprecedented investment vehicle that had been producing big profits, lost ¥970.3 billion.

At a briefing in Tokyo on Wednesday, the billionaire admitted that “earnings are a mess.” He allowed that overvaluing WeWork was a judgment error, but then spent the bulk of the nearly two-hour event defending his approach, highlighting the potential of his technology investments and boasting about his returns compared with traditional venture capitalists. He made it clear that he has no plans to back off a strategy that has rattled Silicon Valley and raised concerns of a bubble in startup valuations. Indeed, he said that fundraising for a second Vision Fund is on track and the fund will debut soon.

“SoftBank’s performance brings to mind Everett Dirksen’s famous quote ‘a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you are talking real money,'” Pelham Smithers, whose London-based firm offers equity research on Asian technology companies, wrote in a note to clients. “The problem the fund has is that to get more investments IPO-ed, it will need a healthy U.S. stock market. This in turn means that the fund would have a tough benchmark to beat.”

The Vision Fund’s strategy has been to put enormous sums — its smallest deals are $100 million or so and the biggest are in the billions — into the most successful tech startups in a given category. Son sometimes refuses to take no for an answer, pressing founders to take more money than they requested or threatening to take it to a rival. SoftBank is operating at a scale never before attempted in Silicon Valley, driving up valuations and making it difficult for traditional venture capital firms to get in on the hottest deals, according to some partners.

SoftBank has backed ByteDance Inc., the most valuable startup in the world at $75 billion, and the second-most valuable, China ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing. But several startups have had trouble living up to their private market valuations, including WeWork and Uber. The U.S. ride-hailing company has tumbled more than 35 percent from its initial public offering in May.

Son showed no sign of lost confidence. He said that his returns are about twice the average for venture capital.

“There is no change in our journey, no change in our vision,” Son said.

Son’s certitude spooked investors given the WeWork fiasco. SoftBank and the Vision Fund had invested more than $10 billion in the co-working giant ahead of its planned initial public offering in September, pushing its valuation as high as $47 billion. But investors balked at buying shares in the money-losing startup and WeWork pulled its IPO. That left the company desperate for cash, prompting SoftBank to extend a $9.5 billion rescue package and take an 80 percent stake in the company. WeWork’s valuation sank to less than $8 billion in the bailout.

Still, Son said he plans to keep making his investments. The second Vision Fund is on track to close soon, he said. It was originally planned to be larger than the first fund, but it’s likely to be about the same size now because investors are more careful about the market. He also said he still plans a third fund.

“The WeWork debacle has eroded investor confidence,” Chris Lane, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, wrote in a report. Lane recommends buying the shares, citing the potential of Vision Fund and deep discount to total value of assets held by SoftBank. “Be greedy when others are fearful,” he wrote.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5