Add Masayoshi Son to the list of Japanese CEOs wishing 2018 had never happened. The SoftBank billionaire is surely having a better year than Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn, who’s been incognito in a Tokyo jail cell for 30 days now.
Yet Son’s dismally-timed $24 billion initial public offering for his mobile telecommunications unit managed to do two things, neither of which is a great omen for 2019.
One: it showed that hits to Japan Inc’s reputation for savvy and prudence keep on coming. Two: the Midas touch that’s been Son’s claim to fame these last two decades is looking shaky.
Japan’s ‘annus horriblis’
The last 12 months have been brutal for the world’s third-largest economy. Poorer-than-expected Q3 data and the Shakespearean drama involving Nissan’s place in the three-way alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi dominates the headlines as 2018 ends.
But don’t forget how accounting troubles at Toshiba, fresh shenanigans at Olympus, the drip-drip-drip of bad news about Takata’s lethal airbags, radiation headaches for Tokyo Electric Power in Fukushima, and quality-control scandals from Kobe Steel to Suzuki have dented Brand Japan.
That rep is being tarnished anew by SoftBank’s IPO flop. Its plunge by as much as 10% on Wednesday, its first trading day, suggests an error in timing Son may regret. One can sympathize with his desire to sell shares in SoftBank’s telco unit.
Son’s hope was that by putting a greater value on the telecom business he could bolster SoftBank’s share price, which he argues is undervalued.
Hopes for strong demand prompted Son to boost the number of shares he sold. Instead, Japan’s biggest stock sale ever underwhelmed markets.
Why, it’s worth asking, would Son choose the moment when a global trade war is slamming the Nikkei to tap markets? Didn’t he fear a massive service outing a few weeks back, related to software snafus, would turn off punters?
Then again, given the way 2018 unfolded for Japan Inc, Son’s stumble seems par for the course.
Is Son losing it?
Son’s Midas touch status – takeaway No. 2 – owes much to his 2000 investment in Alibaba. That year, he found the vision of a young Chinese teacher named Jack Ma compelling enough to hand him $20 million.
In 2014, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur behind China’s e-commerce giant netted Son a $50 billion profit. That single success bestowed a Warren Buffett-like halo on Son.
One bit of irony: SoftBank’s IPO this week was the world’s largest since Alibaba listed in New York. And yet the perceived magic drawing investors Son’s way is the prescience and moxie he displayed with his Ma bet in 2000.
That’s why many investors give his $100 billion Vision Fund the benefit of the doubt.
In 2017, Son’s financial war chest singlehandedly remade the venture capital game. He plowed billions into startups working in robots, solar panels, e-commerce apps, microchips, satellites, office-sharing hives, investment banks and just about every ride-sharing outfit of consequence.
One big wildcard is perceptions about where Son gets roughly half of his Vision Fund money: Saudi Arabia. The alleged involvement of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the grisly murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has drawn investor concern.
The big question: If additional disclosures push Saudi Arabia further in the direction of pariah-state status, might Son be forced to forsake Riyadh’s cash? Still, it’s hard to know how much the shadow of the scandal surrounding MBS contributed to Wednesday’s IPO flop.
One worry that certainly is weighing on SoftBank’s valuations is Son’s scattershot investment style – and his propensity to overpay for company stakes seemingly on a whim.
Two worries that are sure to garner more scrutiny in 2019 are top-of-the-market investments in money-losing office sub-leasor WeWork and chip designer ARM.
The next 12 months offer Japan Inc and Son a fresh opportunity to regain clout lost in 2018. But if investors are communicating anything to Tokyo this week, it’s that the time for blind trust has now past.