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Why yen investors are worried about a future SoftBank without Masayoshi Son

Son, 60, said he wants to retire in his 60s but stay involved


Masayoshi Son
Masayoshi Son

is fond of talking about his 300-year vision for Group Corp. but some Japanese bond investors are already pondering an earlier event -- what will the technology giant be like without its founder?

Son, 60, hasn’t named his successor at the company he founded in 1981 as a distributor. While there’s no indication that Son has any intention of stepping down from his role as chief executive officer soon, his stated intention to retire in his 60s put the matter in focus when the sold six-year yen this month.

While bond buyers have at times bemoaned Son’s willingness to take on massive to fund acquisitions, they are growing increasingly concerned about how his eventual successor will manage the company’s expanding investments.

Son repeated his retirement plan at an earnings briefing in February, though he added he will be involved with the company for the rest of his life. The succession plans are only part of what worries local institutional investors, with the carrier’s move to become the manager of the world’s largest technology investment pool also raising concerns about SoftBank’s focus.

“Son has brought to where it is today through his superb judgment and sense of balance on investments,” said Takahiro Oashi, senior of Asahi Life Asset Management. “It may stumble without his leadership.”

SoftBank spokesmen didn’t reply to several requests for comment by phone and email.

The possibility that Son could pull back from leading SoftBank was cited by several yen investors as a risk when the company sold Japanese-currency notes earlier this month. SoftBank has had no trouble paying its or selling to Japanese individual investors, but demand for its yen offering to institutions this month was weak.

SoftBank’s net has swelled more than six times to 13.7 trillion yen ($125 billion) in the past five years, according to Bloomberg-compiled data. The company sold a 410 billion yen bond earlier this month to individuals, while a 40 billion yen note offered to professional buyers garnered orders only totaling 1.2 times the issuance size, according to the deal underwriter.

Deal-Making Fuels Borrowing

SoftBank has taken on more debt to invest in companies across the globe

More than 90 percent, or 3.63 trillion yen, of SoftBank’s outstanding yen are retail securities that target individuals, including a 400 billion yen note that matures on June 20. Son has often claimed that SoftBank’s true debt load should be seen as negligible because of its huge unrealized gains in investments including in China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Those gains totaled 17.9 trillion yen as of June 14, according to SoftBank’s website.

“No one knows whether the company will stay the course or start to move in a completely different direction in case Son retires,” said Katsuyuki Tokushima, chief investment analyst at NLI Research Institute. “Bonds of any firm being led by a charismatic leader essentially carry the same risk as SoftBank.”

First Published: Fri, June 15 2018. 07:15 IST