February 3, 2014

SoftBank stock takes a hit amid concerns about Sprint

SoftBank has declined for nine straight days in Tokyo, dragged down by concerns about Sprint Corp., the U.S. carrier it bought last July. Undaunted, Son is considering doubling down in the region with a deal for T-Mobile US Inc. – another source of investor anxiety.

SoftBank Corp. founder Masayoshi Son’s U.S. ambitions are taking a toll at home.

SoftBank has declined for nine straight days in Tokyo, dragged down by concerns about Sprint Corp., the Overland Park-based carrier it bought last July. Undaunted, Son is considering doubling down in the region with a deal for T-Mobile US Inc. – another source of investor anxiety.

The stock slide has lopped about $25 billion off SoftBank’s market value and underscored the challenges facing Son, one of Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs with a personal net worth estimated at more than $16 billion. SoftBank took on debt as it fought for control of Sprint and has yet to show it can repeat the success it’s had in Japan. And while a T-Mobile purchase would let Son unite the third- and fourth-largest U.S. carriers, such a deal would bring regulatory and financial risks.

“Concerns are spreading about the performance of SoftBank and Sprint,” said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute in Tokyo. “Profit won’t rise quickly even if the acquisition succeeds.”

SoftBank shares have fallen 20 percent to 7,064 yen from 8,874 yen on Jan. 21, a deeper decline than the 7.7 percent drop for Japan’s benchmark Topix index. The company almost tripled last year and still trades at close to the same level as in October.

The company’s 23 percent decline this year wiped out $2.9 billion of Son’s personal net worth as of the close of Tokyo trading today, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His fortune increased by $10.1 billion in 2013.

Mitsuhiro Kurano, a spokesman for Tokyo-based SoftBank, declined to comment.

The stock slump comes as Son considers an acquisition of T- Mobile, which is No. 4 in the U.S. market. SoftBank has entered into direct talks with T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom AG about resolving obstacles to a potential purchase, people familiar with the matter said last month.

In pursuit of that deal, Son is slated to visit Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, said an official with knowledge of the visit who asked not to be identified because the meeting isn’t public. John Taylor, a Sprint spokesman, declined to comment.

Though the T-Mobile deal would give Son more scale to compete against market leaders Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc., he would have to take on more debt and surmount regulatory obstacles to get the deal done. Sprint executives met last month with antitrust officials at the U.S. Department of Justice about the possible transaction and got a cool reception, a person familiar with the matter said.

Sprint, meanwhile, is still trying to execute a turnaround. The carrier has been working to upgrade its network with technology known as long-term evolution, or LTE. The new standard brings higher speeds, letting Sprint catch up – and possibly surpass – the abilities of its peers.

While the company has said the capital expenditures will be $8 billion this year and $6 billion next year, the actual figure may be higher if Sprint wants to achieve superiority, according to Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson Research.

Sprint’s use of higher-frequency 2.5-gigahertz airwaves puts it at a disadvantage in urban areas where the signal doesn’t easily pass through walls and windows, Moffett said in a note today. To make the network dense enough to provide indoor coverage, Sprint may have to spend $3.1 billion more than it has forecast, he said.

“The promises of a transformational network experience have captivated investors,” Moffett said. “But while investors have priced in Sprint’s transformed capability, they haven’t yet priced in the cost of building it.”

SoftBank’s recent share decline also reflects slower sales growth at Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., China’s largest e-commerce provider, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. SoftBank owned about 37 percent of Alibaba as of July.

Son, who has 2 million followers on Twitter, has said he wants to turn SoftBank into the world’s No. 1 carrier. Acquiring Bellevue, Washington-based T-Mobile would get him closer to that goal.

“With the acquisition of T-Mobile, SoftBank will be the second-largest mobile-phone company in the world,” Tomoaki Kawasaki, an analyst at Iwai Cosmo Holdings Inc. in Tokyo, said last month. “Son can take advantage of it to boost competitiveness.”

For now, Sprint is struggling to cope with its increasingly aggressive rivals. Carriers are offering cheaper plans and buyout offers to customers who switch providers. Sprint, which will report fourth-quarter results on Feb. 11, probably shed subscribers in the period, extending a losing streak, according to Bloomberg Industries analyst John Butler. Verizon, meanwhile, added 3.4 million new subscribers in the past three quarters, while T-Mobile gained more than 2 million.

Sprint, which reduced marketing spending in the third quarter, is focusing on upgrading its network and doesn’t expect a rebound until at least the middle of this year, Butler said.

Sprint closed down its outdated Nextel network on June 30, losing some subscribers in the process. The company reported third-quarter revenue of $8.68 billion in October, missing the average of analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The carrier said on Jan. 23 that it would take a charge of about $165 million in the fourth quarter for costs related to job cuts.

Shares of Sprint have fallen 24 percent this year. The stock dropped 1.3 percent to $8.16 on Monday.

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