The Tokyo-based tech conglomerate, by far the world’s largest startup investor in recent years, would likely use its own cash for what would be the third SoftBank Vision Fund if it moves ahead with the plan, some of the people said.
The company is also considering putting additional money into Vision Fund 2, its main investment fund for the past few years, instead of starting a new fund, one of the people said. Vision Fund 2 is currently worth less than the investment that went into it. Those losses significantly reduce the pay for SoftBank staff working on the fund—a factor in its decision making. The company expects to make a decision in the coming months, the people said.
SoftBank, led by Chief Executive Officer
has been hit particularly hard by the rout in tech valuations that began last fall, posting a record $23 billion loss in the three months ending in June.
Much of that red ink is a product of its first two Vision Funds, the startup investment unit that Mr. Son formed in 2017 in a bid to dominate the venture sector. The $100 billion initial Vision Fund, which raised $60 billion from Saudi and Emirati wealth funds, was beset by giant soured bets on companies including WeWork Inc. and
Didi Global Inc.,
leading to meager gains over five years.
The successor Vision Fund 2, funded by SoftBank and intended to be more cautious, is now worth 19% less than the $49 billion it invested, after accelerating its spending just as valuations peaked on companies including fintech Klarna Holdings AB.
Mr. Son told investors in August he was “quite embarrassed and remorseful” after having gotten caught up in the frenzy, and he has substantially cut back spending on startups. Still, he has said he is committed to the startup and tech sector long-term, and eventually plans to increase spending again.
Mr. Son and SoftBank have tried to chart a new path forward after the market turned against unprofitable tech investments. He has also faced a string of departures of top staff. In July, the company said
who led the Vision Fund since it was created in 2017, would step back from his role overseeing new investments as he starts his own fund.
Despite the misses, SoftBank expects to have more cash coming in over the next year, from a public listing of its chip maker Arm. Its Japanese telecom holdings also generate cash.
Still, analysts and investors say the company’s options are more limited than in the past. Mr. Son has been selling down SoftBank’s stake in Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and its telecom holdings, and funding a large stock buyback program. The result has been an increasingly concentrated bet on startups, where results have been disappointing.
Among those pushing for a new fund are some employees of the Vision Fund. A new fund would be a way to reset their compensation, which is partly based on profits at the fund and its investments, one of the people familiar with discussions said. The current fund would require making back large losses before employees could get those bonuses. A new fund would put profits closer in reach. The company is also considering restructuring staff incentives for Vision Fund 2.
The size of the new fund couldn’t be determined.
Mr. Son personally takes a hit with Vision Fund 2 in the red because of a $2.6 billion personal commitment he made. Based on the terms of the investment, Mr. Son didn’t put up the money himself but owes SoftBank if the fund ends up performing poorly.
The unusual investment has been criticized by some investors and analysts who say it could skew Mr. Son’s motivations given a structure that could make him more focused on Vision Fund 2 than on other investments. Mr. Son, who owns over one-fourth of SoftBank, has said the structure better aligns him with the investment fund.
SoftBank structured its arrangement in a way that allows the company to get repaid on most of its investment before Mr. Son. About $33 billion of its commitment to Vision Fund 2 is in preferred equity.
While that structure would have led to outsize profits for Mr. Son if Vision Fund 2 did well, today it means particularly large losses because the fund is underwater. Mr. Son currently owes $2.1 billion on the investment, SoftBank disclosures show. He is charged a 3% annual interest rate on his unpaid balance to SoftBank.
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