Activist investing is hard work, even for tenacious veterans like Elliott Management Corp. The very mention of its name sends shivers up the spines of corporate fat cats. Yet, until recently, the U.S.-based hedge fund hasn’t been able to scare up much success in Asia.
Elliott has been in the region for years, picking battles with Korean chaebols and Hong Kong billionaire tycoons. But its track record is mixed at best. In 2015, Elliott lost a proxy fight with Samsung Group’s founding Lee family over an $8 billion merger deal. Three years later, the hedge fund sued South Korea for at least $770 million in damages over that deal. This year, it exited its positions in Hyundai Motor Co with a loss.
Even its victories had a bitter aftertaste. This March, Bank of East Asia Ltd., Hong Kong’s only family-run bank, finally agreed to a strategic review, six years after Elliot first began the fight. In the interim, however, the bank’s share price languished. Elliot had a more financially rewarding tangle with the Lee family in 2016, a direct engagement with their crown jewel, Samsung Electronics Co. However, the hedge fund is still involved in a painful lawsuit with the South Korean government over the 2015 proxy fight.
So it must be a great surprise for Elliott that Masayoshi Son, the headstrong founder of SoftBank Group Corp, has been receptive to its activism. The two sides had talks in January, soon after news broke that the hedge fund had built up a stake of over $2.5 billion in the Japan-based multinational conglomerate. Since then, SoftBank has announced asset sale and buyback plans that exceeded what Elliott had asked for. In December, it decided to abandon its Big Tech equity options trading, which had worried Elliott so much that the fund took out offsetting options itself to protect against the Nasdaq whale’s possible billion dollar losses.
Meanwhile, the “slow-burn” management-led buyout plan, reported by Bloomberg News recently, must be music to Elliott’s ears. A gradual repurchase of outstanding shares will help boost the market value of Elliott’s 3% stake, whether a take-private deal takes place or not. SoftBank’s shares have risen about 64% since early February, when news of Elliott’s engagement first broke.
If Masa Son is used to calling the shots, why did he put his ego aside and listen to Paul Singer’s hedge fund?
One possible explanation is that Masa Son needs a friend on Wall Street. After last year’s WeWork IPO debacle, Son’s reputation as a venture capital visionary took a major hit. But his unicorns still need to go public in New York. Antagonizing Elliott, which got on the board of Twitter Inc. in return for keeping Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey on top, is not a good starting point.
Take a look at who buys into SoftBank’s unicorns: They are ultimately Americans. As of the end of September, the $100 billion Vision Fund has made 92 investments but has so far managed only nine full exits. There is a long way to go. Of the 10 companies that have gone public, only two are listed in Hong Kong, while the rest, including Uber Technologies Inc. and China’s Oneconnect Financial Technology Co., went for New York. SoftBank’s shares surged to a two-decade high this week after food delivery service provider DoorDash Inc.’s blockbuster IPO gave the Japanese company a $11.2 billion paper gain.
Fearsome reputations can travel only so far. Elliott might have clout in the U.S., but in South Korea or Hong Kong, the final word usually belongs to homegrown tycoons like Hyundai’s Chung family and Bank of East Asia’s David Li. Local investors and consumers don’t care what a foreign activist has to say about governance or capital structure. On the other hand, the end consumers of Masa Son’s unicorn dreams are Americans. So it’s in his best interest to play nice and listen to Elliott — and submit to its discipline.
Shuli Ren is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian markets.
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