SoftBank lost a major name from its board and confirmed historic losses on Monday — signs of turmoil at the Japanese conglomerate after it was battered by the coronavirus pandemic and a series of tech bets gone bad.
SoftBank reported an annual operating loss of 1.36 trillion yen ($12.7 billion) — its worst ever.
The losses were in line with the company’s own recent forecasts and driven almost entirely by the Vision Fund, the $100 billion tech fund steered by SoftBank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son.
The Vision Fund and affiliated funds suffered operating losses of 1.9 trillion ($17.7 billion) for the fiscal year that ended in March, as the values of Uber (UBER), WeWork and other portfolio companies cratered due to Covid-19.
“This is a big crisis for many of us,” Son said. He likened the pandemic to a deep valley into which some of the Vision Fund’s unicorns — private tech companies worth at least $1 billion — were falling.
Also on Monday, SoftBank announced that Alibaba (BABA) founder Jack Ma had decided to resign from its board. Ma, who is still a director of the Chinese e-commerce company, had held the position for nearly 13 years.
He’s the latest noteworthy board member to leave, after billionaire and Fast Retailing (FRCOF) founder Tadashi Yanai’s departure at the end of last year.
Ma’s exit is notable because of his closeness to Son, who invested $20 million in Alibaba in 2000, a bet that was worth $60 billion when Alibaba went public in 2014.
“Jack Ma is for me my friend and comrade,” Son told investors on Monday.
Before the pandemic, Son said he had dinner with Ma every month, to talk about life and business. “We will remain friends for the rest of our lives, I believe,” he said, speaking through a translator.
Ma’s departure comes as SoftBank takes dramatic measures to shore up its finances, including a plan to sell $41 billion in assets to buy back shares and reduce the company’s heavy debt load.
Son revealed on Monday that the company had secured $11.5 billion in funding using Alibaba shares as collateral. SoftBank’s 25.1% stake in the company is currently worth more than $133 billion.
Speaking about the prospects for SoftBank’s more recent tech investments, Son said some of them will be “able to jump over the valley and fly” after the crisis, he said, while standing next to a cartoon showing unicorns dropping into a crevice as a single, winged unicorn made it to the other side.
Of the 88 companies in the Vision Fund portfolio, Son predicted that 15 could go bankrupt, 15 would ride out the crisis and be successful, and the rest would survive but without generating any meaningful returns.
Larger investments in companies, such as Chinese car hailing company Didi, are doing well and have a good chance of weathering the Covid-19 crisis, he said. The exception, he noted, is WeWork.
“We made a failure on investing in WeWork, and I’ve been admitting that several times,” he said.
Still, Son did not go so far as to say WeWork is headed for bankruptcy, and he noted that the coronavirus crisis has made companies rethink long term office leases, which could benefit the beleaguered co-working company in the long run.
SoftBank also said on Monday that it is buying back up to 500 billion yen ($4.7 billion) worth of shares over the next year, the second share purchase of this size since March.
More buybacks are on the way: Son said the company plans to purchase 2.5 trillion ($23 billion) worth of stock all together.
Shares in SoftBank closed up 1% in Tokyo, outperforming the broader Nikkei 225 (N225), which ended the day 0.5% higher. The stock has lost 21% since its most recent peak last July.