Breakingviews: SoftBank’s Alibaba sale could end breakup taboo

Japan's SoftBank Group Corp Chief Executive Masayoshi Son attends a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

LONDON, Aug 10 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Masayoshi Son is thinking the unthinkable at SoftBank Group (9984.T). His $63 billion technology and telecom empire will slash its stake in Alibaba (9988.HK) to 15% from 24%. The long-overdue shrinkage offers a blueprint for what to do next: break up the conglomerate.

This year’s tech selloff has punished the Japanese holding company, pushing it to a $23 billion net loss last quarter read more . Son’s new watchword is discipline: His Vision Funds, effectively giant venture-capital vehicles, invested just $600 million in the three-month stretch ending in June, compared with some $21 billion a year earlier.

The same focus on cash preservation seems to have informed the decision unveiled on Wednesday to cut the Alibaba holding, which has a totemic significance at SoftBank as one of the world’s most lucrative tech investments. Through derivatives deals with banks, Son could have retained the Alibaba stake by settling so-called prepaid forward contracts in cash. Instead, he handed over the shares. SoftBank is dramatically reducing its position to “eliminate concerns about future cash outflows”.

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It's the sensible move. The Chinese e-commerce titan started by Jack Ma has lost roughly two-thirds of its value over the past two years amid Beijing’s broad tech crackdown, creating a massive distraction for SoftBank investors as Son tries to redirect attention to his stable of Vision Fund unicorns and other startups. The Alibaba holding, as of June 30, was worth $33 billion in net terms and accounted for more than one-fifth of SoftBank’s $160 billion gross asset value. Liquidating it entirely would help narrow SoftBank’s 55% discount to the theoretical sum of its parts.

The same can be said of selling down ownership of SoftBank’s eponymous Japanese mobile operator, which was worth $18 billion in June after deducting the parent company’s margin loan, and a $7 billion T-Mobile US (TMUS.O) holding. Spinning off chip designer Arm, rather than pursuing plans to list a small stake, would likewise simplify the group and lift its valuation. What’s left would be the Vision Funds, making SoftBank a way for public-market investors mainly to gain exposure to Son’s hodgepodge of private tech outfits.

It may not look so appealing under the current circumstances, but at least SoftBank would have a clear purpose. The Alibaba sale could be the first step in breaking some destructive taboos.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)


SoftBank Group on Aug. 10 said it would settle derivatives contracts held against its Alibaba stake by handing a chunk of the shares to banks. The move effectively cuts its stake in the Chinese e-commerce company to 14.6% from 23.7%.

The technology conglomerate controlled by billionaire Masayoshi Son said that settling the contracts early in the form of shares would “eliminate concerns about future cash outflows, and furthermore, reduce costs associated with these prepaid forward contracts”.

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Editing by Jeffrey Goldfarb and Amanda Gomez

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