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SoftBank's big tech-startup bets start to pay off with $3.8 bn Uber gain

SoftBank holds stakes in all of the world's biggest ride-hailing companies and scores of other high-profile startups

Pavel Alpeyev | Bloomberg 

Softbank Masayoshi Son
Masayoshi Son

is starting to demonstrate the potential of his enormous bets on technology startups.

The Japanese billionaire’s Group Corp. reported operating income that more than tripled in the three months to March 31 to 494.9 billion yen ($4.5 billion), helped by a 418 billion yen gain on Technologies Inc. and its are the largest shareholders in the US ride-hailing giant, which is going public this week at a market value that may reach $79 billion.

Son has been remaking Group from a telecommunications operator into a technology investment firm, and his $100 billion has already emerged as an unprecedented force in the industry. SoftBank holds stakes in all of the world’s biggest ride-hailing and scores of other high-profile startups. Son, who made -- and then lost -- a fortune in the dot-com bubble, says 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. “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 and SoftBank’s own contributed 1.26 trillion yen to profit in the fiscal year ended March 31, or slightly more than half of the total. Investments in 29 showed an increase in fair value, while 12 reported a decline.

In addition to Uber, SoftBank also booked a 203.4 billion yen valuation gain from its stake in Guardant Health Inc., which went public in October, and a 154.2 billion yen gain in India’s Oyo. It also recorded a 222.6 billion yen 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., 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 Group’s operating income and value of portfolio companies, the reveal -- shareholder value. Son said the company is worth 23 trillion yen, or more than 21,000 yen a share. SoftBank’s shares closed at a discount of more than 40% to that number and a market cap of 12.7 trillion yen.

Son has long railed against the valuation gap, but investors are starting to come around. The shares have gained almost 60% this year, thanks to a record 600 billion yen share buyback and prospects of payoffs from Son’s technology bets. The billionaire said Vision Fund has already delivered a 45% rate of return after fees to limited partners on net equity basis. For SoftBank shareholders the return is 62%, he said.

“There is no venture capital or private equity that delivers this kind of return,” Son said. 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 totaling $60.1 billion, with ride-hailing as the single biggest segment. In addition to Uber, SoftBank has poured more than $10 billion into China’s Didi Chuxing, $3 billion into Southeast Asia’s leading provider Grab and $2.25 billion in General Motors Co.’s self-driving unit Cruise. Son has said that put together, Vision Fund’s portfolio 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 $5.1 billion. The San Francisco-based company could now be worth more than triple that, at $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.”

First Published: Thu, May 09 2019. 15:03 IST
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