SoftBank Vision Fund set for record $30bn profit on boost from e-commerce firm Coupang's IPO

The Japanese conglomerate is scheduled to report its earnings for March quarter on May 12

Pedestrians walk past a SoftBank mobile shop in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo on April 6, 2021.  / AFP / Yuki IWAMURA
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SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund profit may reach an unprecedented $30 billion in the March quarter, almost quadrupling the record it had just set, according to sources.

Profit in the unit was super-charged by the successful initial public offering of Coupang, the South Korean e-commerce leader which debuted in New York last month. That will account for the lion’s share of what’s expected to be between $25n and $30bn in reported gains for the three months ended March 31, sources said.

SoftBank is scheduled to report results on May 12.

The markets are delivering their strongest validation yet for Masayoshi Son’s strategy of pouring massive amounts of cash into mature start-ups. The Vision Fund’s portfolio of over 160 investments will record its third straight quarter of record profits helped by a global IPO rush that has seen companies worldwide raise more than $200bn in 2021.

When Mr Son takes the stage to report the latest results, he will probably have one more milestone to celebrate – group net income that’s the highest ever for a listed Japanese company in any quarter dating back to 1990, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

SoftBank already holds the top spot, setting the current high of $11.5bn in June.

Coupang’s $4.6bn offering was the second biggest this year and marks SoftBank’s best return since Alibaba Group’s listing in 2014. The coming months will also see some of Mr Son’s largest and most controversial bets test the market, including ride-hailing giants Grab Holdings and Didi Chuxing as well as the troubled office-sharing company WeWork.

“The markets are very encouraged and supportive of what the Vision Fund has been able to do with its investments,” said Justin Tang, head of Asian research at United First Partners in Singapore. “Clearly there is still a lot of money out there that needs to find a home.”

Coupang’s stock ended the quarter 41 per cent higher than its mid-March IPO. The Vision Fund invested in November 2018 in a $2bn deal that valued Coupang at $9bn. That funding followed $1bn from SoftBank itself in 2015, valuing the start-up at about $5bn. The Japanese conglomerate’s 33 per cent stake was worth close to $28bn as of March 31.

SoftBank will also book a valuation gain of about $2bn on its stake in Uber, which rose about 7 per cent in the quarter, according to sources. The fund sold $2bn worth of stock in the ride-hailing company in January, eking out a small profit. Another $1.2bn gain will come from its stake in Auto1 Group, a German wholesale platform for used cars which went public in February.

The Vision Fund will also book a gain on its stake in ByteDance, the Chinese parent of hit video app TikTok. SoftBank owns about 3 per cent of the company, a stake it acquired mostly at a $63bn valuation in secondary markets in addition to a direct investment at a $75bn valuation, the sources said. The company has since hit valuation of $140bn, according to market researcher CB Insights, and traded at $250bn in private transactions.

A banner for South Korea's Coupang, the South Korean equivalent of Amazon in the US, or Alibaba in China, adorns the New York Stock Exchange facade before the company's IPO last month. AP
A banner for South Korea's Coupang, the South Korean equivalent of Amazon in the US, or Alibaba in China, adorns the New York Stock Exchange facade before the company's IPO last month. AP

Even WeWork, one of Mr Son’s biggest missteps in recent years, will contribute to profit. After its failed IPO attempt and a bailout by SoftBank in 2019, the office-sharing company saw its worth tumble to $2.9bn last year amid the pandemic, a far cry from its once-lofty $47bn valuation. WeWork now plans to go public via a blank-checque company in a deal that would value it at $9bn.

Some Vision Fund investments will see their value marked down, though gains will more than offset those losses, the sources said. The fund will take a write-down of about $500 million on Greensill Capital, the supply-chain finance company owned by billionaire Lex Greensill that filed for insolvency last month. The valuation of Oyo Hotels will be reduced by several hundred million dollars too.

“Coupang is a home run for the Vision Fund. And there is likely to be more good news around Didi, ByteDance, Grab and even WeWork,” said Atul Goyal, senior analyst at Jefferies. “But profits are meaningful when they recur. These gains are neither operating nor recurring.”

SoftBank doesn’t have to sell equity holdings to book income, so its profits are often just on paper. It reports income when the value of companies like Coupang rise, boosting the value of its stock. Its accounting practices comply with industry standards.

About half of the capital raised in the IPOs so far this year has gone to special purpose acquisition companies and SoftBank has joined the frenzy, listing several blank-cheque companies since the start of the year. The three SPACs created by the Vision Fund have a combined market capitalisation of about $1.5bn.

At the previous earnings briefing in February, Mr Son said SoftBank may see between 10 and 20 public listings a year. Grab said this week it will go public through the largest-ever merger with a blank-cheque company, valuing the South-East Asian ride-hailing and delivery giant at about $40bn. Its Chinese counterpart Didi has filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO that could value the company as highly as $70bn to $100bn.

“The wind will probably continue to be at Mr Son’s back for some time,” said Mr Tang. “But matching last fiscal year’s performance would be quite a feat.”