(Bloomberg) — Masayoshi Son said he would begin to make personal investments alongside SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund, a controversial step that could lead to conflicts of interest as his company backs technology startups.
The Japanese billionaire made the disclosure as his company reported earnings, explaining he will begin to co-invest in Vision Fund 2, an investment vehicle where SoftBank has been the sole source of capital. Son can invest up to $2.6 billion and will own 17.25% of the equity. He will have a similar arrangement with SoftBank’s Latin America fund.
Business leaders tend to avoid mixing their personal financial interests with corporate responsibilities. Governance experts caution there can be conflicts of interest, especially when the company has public shareholders. If, for example, the chief executive officer has a personal stake in a startup, it may create extra pressure for the Vision Fund to ensure the company doesn’t go under.
“Investors were holding their breath for more buybacks, so this is not the reveal we were hoping to see,” said Kirk Boodry, an analyst at Redex Research in Tokyo. “This raises corporate governance concerns.”
SoftBank shares slid as much as 2.7% in Tokyo trading.
Son’s mingling of personal interests with those of his company has drawn fire before. When SoftBank set up a unit called SB Northstar to trade public stocks and derivatives, Son took a 33% personal stake in the operation. Analysts and fund managers questioned why the billionaire would decide on such a structure given the potential for confusion and conflicts.
On Tuesday, during a press conference after results, Son defended the latest decision. He said SoftBank’s board approved the structure, while he recused himself from the vote.
“Because I believe, I want the management to share in the investment risk,” he said. “In good times and bad, one thing doesn’t change – my conviction that AI revolution will absolutely continue for the next 10 to 20 years.”
The board approval wasn’t reassuring to everyone.
“The board may have signed off on this, but are there any directors who could stand up to SoftBank founder and owner Son?” said Koji Hirai, president of M&A advisory firm Assist Co.“There is a possibility of a conflict there.”
Son said he had planned for top management to contribute to the first Vision Fund. While the program was approved by the board, it was never put into action as Vision Fund slipped into the red and SoftBank’s shares price crashed.
“I became poor,” Son joked, referring to his personal borrowing using his company’s stock as collateral.
The founder explained that venture capital firm partners typically get a 20% to 30% performance fee, but the Vision Fund doesn’t have similar incentives. The co-investment is supposed to provide financial benefits, but will include a downside.
“I will take risks all by myself initially,” Son said. “Then I will distribute to other people in the management. We want this to remain as the culture of SoftBank.”
The Japanese company has stoked concerns in the past that it doesn’t have sufficient governance and compliance infrastructure in place as it evolves into an investment holding company. SoftBank director Yuko Kawamoto resigned from the company’s board after one year in June, writing a highly unusual departing memo that highlighted the company’s need for better internal checks and governance.
“SBG needs to formulate a form of governance that allows Masa to fully demonstrate his talents, which can then be integrated into shareholders’ value,” she wrote.
SoftBank’s announcements Tuesday are unlikely to help revive the company’s share price, which has dropped by about a third from its peak in March. Investors have been looking for the company to buy back more of its own shares, but Son declined to commit to such a move while reporting a sharp drop in profit at the Vision Fund business.
“We are surprised and disappointed,” Jefferies analyst Atul Goyal wrote in a research note. “The stock may continue to underperform without any catalyst in sight.”
SoftBank Disappoints on Buyback, Watch Asset Sales: Street Wrap
The Vision Fund’s income in the three months ended June 3O was 235.6 billion yen ($2.1 billion), down from a record 2.27 trillion yen profit in the previous quarter. The Tokyo-based company had net income of 761.5 billion yen in the period and did not release operating profit figures.
Son’s investment business had a strong run as a global surge in technology shares boosted Vision Fund’s profit to new records for three consecutive quarters last fiscal year. Since then, some of the company’s biggest hits have surrendered gains with South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang Inc. plunging by about 20%. Now a tech sector crackdown by Chinese regulators is threatening to push Vision Fund’s earnings into the red in the current quarter.
SoftBank reported a $4.3 billion loss in Coupang’s valuation, while a quarter earlier it had contributed $24.5 billion to the Vision Fund’s profit.
Gains from Didi Global Inc., whose debut at the end of the quarter was one of the largest U.S. offerings of the past decade, were the main reason the business remained profitable. Didi contributed $3.2 billion to the bottom line.
But as soon as the books for the quarter were closed, China’s cyberspace regulator launched an offensive on the country’s tech sector, sending SoftBank’s China portfolio into a tailspin. Didi, which was removed from app stores on orders from Beijing, and Uber-like trucking startup Full Truck Alliance Co. are both down more than 30% since the end of June. Zhangmen Education Inc., part of China’s private education industry that the government said was “hijacked by capital,” lost more than 60%.
“The problem with the Vision Fund SoftBank is that their largest investments so far have been middling to poor – WeWork, Uber, Didi,” Boodry said. “Those three alone are a quarter of the fund. That’s a huge performance hurdle for the rest of the fund to overcome.”
In the press conference, Son defended the company’s track record and its long-term investment success. He said SoftBank’s funds have $88.2 billion in unrealized fair value, along with $18.3 billion in realized value.
Son argued his investments weren’t concentrated in any single geographic area, explaining China is just 23% of the fund’s total value and accounted for 11% of new investments last quarter. He also suggested investors should wait it out, giving new regulations there one to two years to get finalized.
He conceded most of the company’s portfolio of more than 300 companies leverage artificial intelligence, but added there’s little doubt that technology will be central to the future.
“If AI fails, SoftBank would fail, that’s a risk,” Son said.
SoftBank pared back its holdings in technology stocks, a potential warning sign for other investors. It no longer lists Facebook Inc. , Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc. or Netflix Inc. among its investments. The disclosure was as of June 30.
(Updates with share price in fifth paragraph)
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