Uber is preparing to hand over its Southeast Asia business to the Singaporean ridesharing company Grab, according to a report by CNBC. Uber would get Grab equity in the deal, if and when it goes through.
CNBC’s sources further said the deal was part of a strategy to help Uber reduce costs ahead of a planned IPO. The company lost a mind-boggling $4.5 billion in 2017 on $7.5 billion in sales – which means there’s plenty of demand for its services, but it needs to do some serious streamlining and focus on its strongest regions.
But a closer look shows there may be more going on than one company’s decision to exit a challenging market.
Asia as a whole has certainly been tough on Uber, with regional services consistently beating the American giant. Uber already threw in the towel in China, where it swapped its operations for an ownership stake in competitor Didi Chuxing in 2016. In India, the taxi platform Ola stole 3% of the market from Uber just in the second half of 2017, despite Uber’s major push to win there. Ola now leads in market share by more than 15%.
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But here’s the thing: Didi, Ola, and Grab have all taken large investments from Japan’s SoftBank. Last month, SoftBank also made a $1.25 billion investment in Uber and became the company’s largest shareholder. Based on those relationships, Quartz recently dubbed SoftBank “the real king of ride-hailing.”
An Uber deal with Grab could serve SoftBank’s push to streamline the competitive environment for ride-hailing services – or, put another way, to divide up its global kingdom into small, relatively sheltered fiefdoms. Rajeev Misra, who joined Uber’s board as part of the SoftBank deal, has argued that Uber should focus primarily on the U.S. and Europe. It has also remained strong in Latin America and the Middle East.
So while the Southeast Asia deal might help nudge Uber’s balance sheet in the right direction, it also represents a non-trivial retrenchment of its ambitions. As Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky chronicled in his 2017 book on the company, Uber once sought global domination. Now, facing regulatory and competitive roadblocks in dozens of markets, and with investors guiding it along a more modest path, it may have to settle for a lot less.