By Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Greg Roumeliotis
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Hedge fund Elliott Management Corp, one of the world’s most powerful activist investors, has amassed a nearly $3 billion stake in SoftBank Group Corp and is pushing for changes to boost the Japanese conglomerate’s value, sources said.
Elliott’s involvement is likely to cast new light on SoftBank’s financial track record, which has been scrutinized heavily by investors after several of its expensive bets on startups around the world, including office space-sharing firm WeWork, soured.
The New York-headquartered hedge fund has owned SoftBank shares for years but late last year grew its stake into one of its largest-ever positions in a company, the sources said. Elliott now owns roughly 3% of SoftBank, the sources added.
SoftBank has been vulnerable to investor criticism that its stock trades at a deep discount to the value of its holdings.
Its shares jumped 8% on Friday morning in Tokyo, giving the conglomerate a market capitalization of roughly $95 billion.
The value of its stakes in Alibaba, Sprint and its Japanese telecom business is roughly $210 billion.
Elliott, which oversees $40 billion in assets, has held discussions with SoftBank’s management and is calling on the company to buy back some $20 billion of its stock, improve its governance by increasing the independence and diversity of its board and improving transparency, the sources said.
“Elliott’s substantial investment in SoftBank Group reflects its strong conviction that the market significantly undervalues SoftBank’s portfolio of assets,” an Elliott spokeswoman said.
“Elliott has engaged privately with SoftBank’s leadership and is working constructively on solutions to help SoftBank materially and sustainably reduce its discount to intrinsic value,” the Elliott spokeswoman added.
SoftBank said it welcomes investors’ feedback. “We are in complete agreement that our shares are deeply undervalued by public investors,” a SoftBank spokeswoman said.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Elliott’s stake on Thursday.
Elliott believes SoftBank could raise money for share buybacks by selling a small share of its publicly listed holdings and make its purchases at a sharp discount, the sources said.
The hedge fund is also calling for changes in how decisions are made at SoftBank, where its founder, Masayoshi Son, owns 25%. Major corporate decisions at the company require support from two-thirds of its shareholders, but Elliott has no plans to challenge Son’s position.
Some of the discussions with Elliott have centered around improving the way investment decisions are made at SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund. Its mixed track record has weighed on SoftBank’s effort to raise a second fund of similar size.
Japan has become a fertile hunting ground for activist investors in recent months with Daniel Loeb’s Third Point calling on Sony to spin off its semiconductor unit and Olympus Corp inviting ValueAct Capital to become a director on its board early last year.
Office-sharing company WeWork was last year’s most high-profile IPO casualty, revising down its potential IPO valuation by tens of billions of dollars before eventually shelving plans to go public. It was bailed out by SoftBank for close to $10 billion.
WeWork was not the first setback for the stock market debuts of SoftBank investments.
Shares in ride-hailing app Uber Technologies have fallen by more than a third since its listing. Shares of Slack Technologies, which develops productivity software, have tumbled by almost half.
(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Greg Roumeliotis in New York; Additional reporting by Abhishek Manikandan and Sam Nussey; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Muralikumar Anantharman)