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SoftBank founder opens door to working with tough activist investor after profits fall 99% short of estimates

February 12, 2020, 1:08 PM UTC

SoftBank Group Corp. founder Masayoshi Son opened the door to making at least some of the changes championed by activist investor Paul Singer, after the Japanese company reported a second quarter of losses from its startup investing.

Son called Singer’s Elliott Management Corp. an “important partner” and said he is in broad agreement with the investor about SoftBank buybacks and share value. Son said he is on the side of shareholders, especially since he is the largest stockholder at the company. The two billionaires held discussions a couple weeks ago, he said.

Son is adopting a more conciliatory stance just as he’s stumbling with his signature effort — the $100 billion Vision Fund, which made him the biggest investor in technology. The fund lost money in the three months ended in December, one quarter after the meltdown at WeWork triggered a record loss for the Japanese company. On Wednesday, Son said he is no longer targeting $108 billion for a second fund and SoftBank may finance the effort on its own.

“We are thankful that such a distinguished investor has joined us as a friend,” Son said at a press conference in Tokyo to discuss earnings. “We are basically in agreement on carrying out large buybacks when the finances allow it.”

Elliott disclosed a stake of almost $3 billion in SoftBank this month, arguing the company’s shares are substantially undervalued compared with its assets. It has advocated for a share buyback of as much as $20 billion, along with governance changes and more transparency about its investments.

The Vision Fund lost 225.1 billion yen ($2.05 billion) for the three months ended in December. SoftBank Group reported a slim operating profit of 2.6 billion yen, compared with the 344.7 billion yen average of analyst estimates.

The past 12 months have been a roller coaster for Son and SoftBank investors alike. A year ago, the company unveiled a record buyback, sparking a rally that pushed shares to the highest since its dot-com peak in 2000. Uber Technologies Inc.’s disappointing public debut and the implosion of WeWork wiped out the gains over the next few months. But SoftBank surged again in the past week after Singer disclosed his stake and Son won approval to sell his Sprint Corp. to T-Mobile US Inc.

Son focused on the positive in the presentation to shareholders and the media in Tokyo. He said the Vision Fund is on track to return to profit in the current quarter. The eight portfolio companies that are publicly trading, including Uber, Slack Technologies Inc. and Guardant Health Inc., have added $3 billion in paper profit in the current three months, he said.

“At the last earnings briefing I used the words ‘I regret’ 20 times. But after a difficult winter always comes spring,” Son said. “The tide is turning,” he added, standing in front of a slide with the same words and a crashing wave.

The most dramatic change in portfolio value since the quarter closed was Uber, whose shares have climbed more than 35% this year. That, Son said, means the Vision Fund’s stake is now worth $1.5 billion more than its investment, compared with $1 billion less at the end of December.

The Vision Fund’s overall performance was murkier. SoftBank said the fund’s portfolio remained unchanged from the previous quarter at 88 investments. It reported a gain in valuation for 29 companies in the December quarter, while 31 saw their worth decline. The unrealized gain on the investments, or the difference between the cost at which it acquired the stakes and their present fair value, shrunk to $5.2 billion. That’s less than a third of the paper profit SoftBank reported six months ago.

“Vision Fund is still going to have a lot of problems,” Amir Anvarzadeh, a market strategist at Asymmetric Advisors Pte in Singapore, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television before the earnings announcement. “They really need to focus on profitability rather than sales growth.”

SoftBank also said it is introducing new governance standards for its portfolio companies, including the composition of the board of directors, founder and management rights, rights of shareholders, and mitigation of potential conflicts of interest. The new rules will “enhance value creation and liquidity” at portfolio companies, it said in a statement.

Elliott wants SoftBank to set up a special committee to review the investment process at the Vision Fund, which it thinks has dragged on the share price despite making up a small portion of assets under management, people familiar with the matter have said.

Son’s best bet to date is still the investment he made in Alibaba two decades ago. In the latest quarter, SoftBank said it booked a 331.9 billion yen gain from the e-commerce giant’s listing in Hong Kong.

That deal turned Son’s $20 million into a stake worth over $130 billion, a spectacular return that cemented his reputation as an investor and helped him raise the original $100 billion Vision Fund. But the track record since then has been spotty. In addition to the WeWork fiasco, he suffered setbacks at portfolio companies, including Wag Labs, Zume Pizza and Brandless Inc.

Son, asked repeatedly about the second Vision Fund at the conference in Tokyo, said he still wants to raise the money but acknowledged the WeWork troubles have set back those plans. Major backers of the first fund, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Co., have remained on the sidelines so far. He said SoftBank may start with a smaller, bridge fund so it can keep doing deals.

“A lot of our planned investors have been worried by the trouble at WeWork and Uber and we heard their feedback,” Son said. “It’s fully possible for us to carry on investing entirely with our own funds.”

He wasn’t precise about what the size of the fund would be.

“After a lot of reflecting, it seems right that the scale is somewhat reduced this time,” he said. “We can start slightly smaller for the next year or two with a kind of bridge fund and build on those results to raise a second fund.”

SoftBank has weighed contributing $40 billion to $50 billion for the second fund, people familiar with the matter have said.

“The company will struggle to fund both Vision Fund II and buybacks unless they get a large outside commitment to VF II,” Chris Lane, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein, said prior to the announcement.

SoftBank closed 12% higher in Tokyo before the earnings announcement, buoyed by news that the sale of Sprint to T-Mobile US Inc. won approval. The shares are up 21% this year.

SoftBank’s last share re-purchase was announced about a year ago, a record 600 billion yen.

The company’s own sum-of-parts calculation puts its total value at more than 12,000 yen a share. That’s more than double SoftBank’s actual share price, which values the company at about $110 billion. Elliott thinks SoftBank’s net asset value could be about $230 billion, people familiar with the discussions have said.

Son urged investors to focus on SoftBank’s shareholder value, which would include its stake in Alibaba, rather than operating profit, which is swayed by share price fluctuation in investments like Uber. To illustrate, he showed a slide with a famous visual illusion that can look like a duck or a rabbit depending on perspective.

“The only measure by which SoftBank, an investment company, should be evaluated by is whether shareholder value rises or falls,” he said.

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