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Naspers Brings SoftBank-Style Mega-Tech to Europe

Alex Webb
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Naspers Brings SoftBank-Style Mega-Tech to Europe

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The perennial worry about European technology is that there isn’t a consumer-facing giant to rival the size of Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc., Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.

In one fell swoop, it’s about to get one. Sort of. Naspers Ltd., South Africa’s most valuable company, plans to list its internet businesses in Amsterdam by distributing a stake of about 25 percent to existing shareholders, while retaining the rest of the new holding company. The valuation could top $100 billion.

A direct comparison with the Silicon Valley titans is unfair, since Johannesburg-based Naspers’s size has nothing to do with its own operations.

The new company will be more akin to SoftBank Group Corp. That’s because the South African firm is largely a proxy for Chinese web behemoth Tencent Holdings Ltd., in which it has a 31 percent stake. Naspers derives all of its value from the investment – its holdings in the likes of Germany’s Delivery Hero SE and Russia’s Mail.ru contribute nothing.

Considering that its Tencent holding is worth $133 billion, but its market capitalization is a humbler $98 billion, the similarities to SoftBank are striking. The Japanese firm has a market capitalization of $107 billion, but its 29 percent stake in Alibaba Group Corp. is worth $132 billion. Like Naspers, SoftBank has struggled to be seen by investors as little more than a proxy for Alibaba, and derives much of its value from the e-commerce company.

And both are investors in startups. The South African firm last year raised $9.8 billion for such investments by selling a 2 percent stake in Tencent. But while Masayoshi Son splashes his cash on a remarkable range of businesses, Naspers has adopted a narrower focus, targeting social platforms, e-commerce and payments.

Naspers move is positive for the region’s tech. The new firm – called NewCo, for now – will surely be more inclined to invest in the continent. The board, management team and headquarters will be European, and that matters for directing new funds.

That said, there are a few reasons for would-be investment targets to manage their enthusiasm.

Naspers’s discount to the Tencent investment means the firm’s startup investments essentially have a negative value. That could change if, as Chief Executive Officer Bob van Dijk expects, the NewCo attracts new investors for whom it’s easier to invest in Europe than Africa, and the startup investments start generating cash.

The NewCo could sell down the Tencent stake to generate investment funds. That will become easier as a company listed in the Netherlands, where capital gains tax is less than in South Africa.

But Naspers investors remain justifiably skeptical that more value can be generated by reinvesting capital elsewhere than by keeping it in Tencent. After all, the Chinese firm contributed more than 10 times as much profit than the rest of Naspers’s operations combined in 2018. So European startups expecting a deluge of cash into the region shouldn't hold their breath. Van Dijk told me on Monday he has no intention of selling the Tencent stake further "at this stage."

While it brings a huge amount of tech value into Europe, the Naspers NewCo won’t exactly be a regional counterweight to Google, Facebook et al. The continent still needs a consumer tech behemoth with operations to counter the scale of Silicon Valley. But the arrival of a $100 billion valuation firm is certainly a step in the right direction.

To contact the author of this story: Alex Webb at awebb25@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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