$100 Billion++ , is Softbank’s Vision fund blinding the market?

The tech IPO market is having a bonanza year so far and NASDAQ hit an all time high in April. However, confidence in the tech giants and their ethics in dealing with consumer data is perhaps at rock bottom. Cheap money is causing ballooning valuations. With Zoom, Pinterest, Lyft, Slack, Uber, WeWork all going for the big day at the market, are we witnessing a repeat of the dot com boom and bust?

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The other question to ask is “Is Technology the new Banking?”. As they say, “Follow the money” to catch the bad guys in crime stories. The other way to look at it is, when people make good money, they are often portrayed as the bad guys. The world loves to see them fall. Behavioural and philosophical points aside, several market trends are shouting out for caution.

Analytics company Intensity’s April prediction puts the chances of a recession happening in the next 18 months at 98.9% and in the next 24 months at 99.9%. They are expecting a recession to happen in October 2019. Out of curiosity, I went through all their previous months’ predictions, to check for consistency. The confidence levels had increased steeply between Aug-Sep 2018, and have stayed high since.

Irrational exuberance in the markets is on display yet again. The Crypto bubble burst two years ago, but didn’t cause much of a pain as the market cap was not big enough. But with tech stocks driven by late stage VCs like Softbank, we have more to lose.

Global debt levels are at an all time high at $244 Trillion, and almost everyday economists are writing about a crisis triggered by debt markets.

One of the key trends over the last two years in the VC industry is the rise of late stage venture funds. Softbank led the boom, with Sequioa and others following up with relatively modest sized funds to catch “Unicorns” before their big day in the public markets. The strategy is to get in, pump the firms with steroids and fatten them up for the markets to consume. In the process, make some huge multiples.

Softbank’s investment timeline: Source, Crunchbase

Some stats around the Softbank fund

  • $100 Billion to invest
  • ~$70 Billion deployed so far in about two years,
  • $15 Billion more
  • $10 Billion in Uber and $5 Billion in WeWork
  • Improbable, NVidia, Grab, Kabbage, Flipkart, Oyo, Slack, PingAn, Alibaba and more recently OakNorth are some big names in the porftfolio
  • $45 Billion from Saudi’s Sovereign Wealth Fund represents the biggest investor in the Softbank Vision Fund.

However, both Uber and WeWork have struggled to demonstrate a sustainable business model inspite of their rise. The Growth vs Profitability conundrum remains, and these two might well be case studies on how not to spend VC money, if (when?) their “Going-Public” goes sour.

The Softbank Vision fund could also be a case study of “How not to do Venture Capital”. As a late stage Venture Capital investor, they have an opportunity to look for firms with robust business models and help them go public.

One bright spot is their investment into OakNorth, a UK based Fintech, who tripled their profits in 2018.

The strategy with firms like WeWork or Uber should have been to identify where the business model needed tweaking and pivoting. That could be achieved with $100 Billion in the bank. As a fund with so much capital, they have a responsibility to make healthy VC investment decisions. Not just for their investors, but also for the markets.

I am sure Softbank will make handsome multiples when some of these shaky businesses go public. However, the success these firms managed with private money, would be hard to replicate in the stock market. If a few of them fail, that would trigger pain.

There is enough negative PR about the tech industry’s lack of ethics, diversity and how they manage data monopoly. Creating a bubble, riding it and exiting it before a market crash might just make Tech the New Banking. Softbank might have accelerated that process.

Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a Venture Capital investor at Green Shores Capital focusing on “Sustainable Deeptech Investments” and a podcast host.

I have no positions or commercial relationships with the companies or people mentioned. I am not receiving compensation for this post.

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