SoftBank’s big bets start to pay off

It’s operating income more than triples, helped by a RM16.7b gain on ride-hailing giant Uber


TOKYO • Masayoshi Son (picture) is starting to demonstrate the potential of his enormous bets on technology start-ups.

The Japanese billionaire’s SoftBank Group Corp reported operating income that more than tripled in the three months to March 31 to ¥494.9 billion (RM19.8 billion), helped by a ¥418 billion gain on Uber Technologies Inc.

SoftBank and its Vision Fund are the largest shareholders in the US ride-hailing giant, which is going public this week at a market value that may reach US$79 billion (RM327.85 billion).

Son has been remaking SoftBank from a telecommunications operator into a technology investment firm, and his US$100 billion Vision Fund has already emerged as an unprecedented force in the industry.

Son, who made — and then lost — a fortune in the dot-com bubble, said it’s finally the right time for his deals to pay off.

“I often look back to the 2000 bubble and feel bad for all the SoftBank investors who believed our dream,” Son said at a presentation in Tokyo after the earnings report yesterday.

“Sorry to keep you all waiting for 20 years. Our time has finally come. Even if my hair is much thinner now.”

SoftBank announced a two-for-one stock split along with the earnings, while it keeps the same dividend payout per share. That will effectively double the annual dividend year over year.

The Vision Fund and SoftBank’s own Delta Fund contributed ¥1.26 trillion to profit in the fiscal year ended March 31, or slightly more than half of the total.

Investments in 29 companies showed an increase in fair value, while 12 reported a decline.

In addition to Uber, SoftBank also booked a ¥203.4 billion valuation gain from its stake in Guardant Health Inc, which went public in October, and a ¥154.2 billion gain in India’s Oyo.

It also recorded a ¥222.6 billion loss due to the share price decline in Nvidia Corp.

“The Vision Fund is now the key growth driver for SoftBank and all the attention is on the profits in that segment,” Tomoaki Kawasaki, an analyst at Iwai Cosmo Securities Co Ltd, said ahead of the earnings announcement. “There is a growing expectation in the market that profit gains will continue into this fiscal year.”

Son opened the earnings briefing with a slide of a graph snaking sharply up from 1999 to the present time.

“Just remember this graph, the rest is error margin,” Son said. “Who knows what this is? Whoever can guess right must be a real expert.”

After dismissing audience guesses of SoftBank’s operating income and value of portfolio companies, the reveal — shareholder value.

Son said the company is worth ¥23 trillion, or more than ¥21,000 a share. SoftBank’s shares closed at a discount of more than 40% to that number and a market cap of ¥12.7 trillion.

Son has long railed against the valuation gap, but investors are starting to come around. “There is no venture capital or private equity that delivers this kind of return.”

He added that SoftBank plans to set up a second Vision Fund soon and then will get investors on board.

The first Vision Fund holds 69 investments at a cost totalling US$60.1 billion, with ride-hailing as the single biggest segment.

In addition to Uber, SoftBank has poured more than US$10 billion into China’s Didi Chuxing, US$3 billion into South-East Asia’s leading provider Grab and US$2.25 billion in General Motors Co’s self-driving unit Cruise.

Son said, put together, Vision Fund’s portfolio companies control 90% of the ride-hailing market worldwide.

SoftBank also invested into Slack Technologies Inc in September 2017 in a financing round that valued the seller of chat and collaboration tools to businesses at US$5.1 billion.

The San Francisco-based company could now be worth more than triple that, at US$16 billion when it goes public in June or July.

“We only want companies that are No 1 in their industries,” Son said during the presentation. “If you are going to do it at all, may as well be No 1. I dislike being second, that’s just my personality.” — Bloomberg