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SoftBank's Son Hawks a Hot Stock for Cool Cash

Tara Lachapelle
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SoftBank's Son Hawks a Hot Stock for Cool Cash

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. unloads about 200 million shares of T-Mobile US Inc., more investors get a chance to own a top-performing stock that had been hogged by insiders. SoftBank’s fire sale isn’t a knock on T-Mobile, but rather a reluctant move by billionaire Masayoshi Son to shore up his own troubled conglomerate. Indeed, his loss will be someone else’s gain. 

Son took control of Sprint Corp. in 2013 and then spent years pursuing a merger between the beleaguered wireless carrier and its stronger rival, T-Mobile. He finally got his way thanks to the Trump administration’s lax regulators at the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission. Their focus on America’s standing in the so-called race to 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity, overshadowed the antitrust concerns. Sprint officially became part of T-Mobile in April, handing SoftBank ownership of about 25% of the combined company; another 44% is owned by Deutsche Telekom AG. Until this week, that left only a small public float for a stock that’s long been the envy of its industry — and will likely continue to be.

After the implosion of office-space rental company WeWork Cos. and the Covid-19 pandemic, SoftBank suffered record losses from its investments and is in need of cash. In turn, the company is undertaking a series of complex transactions to exit most of its T-Mobile stake, generating about $20 billion in proceeds. The deal involves a public equity offering, a rights offering to existing shareholders, a private trust vehicle and a call option for Deutsche Telekom to increase its ownership of T-Mobile down the road when its own balance sheet is in better shape. The transactions are structured so that even though more T-Mobile shares will be available to the public, the total number of shares outstanding won’t change. T-Mobile also gets $300 million for playing banker. 

T-Mobile’s stock price closed at an all-time high of $107.16 on Tuesday. After the market closed, the shares SoftBank is selling priced at $103 apiece, according to a CNBC report.

T-Mobile’s subscriber base, revenue and stock price are all expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future at a faster clip than that of its two larger rivals, Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. Its consumer appeal comes from offering cheaper data plans on a network that has improved tremendously over the years, as well as a friendlier customer-service experience. Led by a larger-than-life CEO whose magenta wardrobe made him a walking T-Mobile billboard, the company was able to distinguish itself over time as a fun brand in an otherwise drab industry. That CEO, John Legere, left after sealing the Sprint deal and was replaced by Mike Sievert. The SoftBank share sale is also a farewell performance for Braxton Carter, T-Mobile’s pink cowboy hat-wearing chief financial officer, who retires next week. 

The Sprint merger fundamentally changed the industry by eliminating a low-cost rival that T-Mobile competed with most. T-Mobile’s own porting ratios, a measure of how many customers one carrier steals from another, showed that it was consistently taking a bigger bite out of Sprint’s subscriber base than either Verizon or AT&T’s. 

Now that the deal is done, T-Mobile would seem to have two options: 1) Given that there’s so much extra capacity on its network to handle more subscribers, it could cut prices even more. That would supercharge its own growth while putting pressure on AT&T and Verizon. 2) Instead, T-Mobile could keep prices flat or even raise them to improve profit margins more immediately, leaving competition more stagnant. The latter option is the less innovative, less consumer-friendly route that was feared by opponents of the Sprint takeover. (T-Mobile’s 13-hour outage on its network last week also doesn’t help to quell the fear that the industry is insufficiently regulated.) Here’s how different T-Mobile’s profitability might look if it were to adopt AT&T’s pricing:

In either case, it may be a win-win for investors. T-Mobile executives predict that it will save more than $40 billion in costs due to the Sprint deal, much of which will come from job cuts and shutting stores in overlapping locations (another reason the transaction was criticized). Wireless carriers also rely on costly ad campaigns to promote their networks. The combined T-Mobile-Sprint will now be able to save about $700 million a year just from lower advertising expenses, according to a report earlier this month by Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst for New Street Research.

Chaplin expects T-Mobile to pursue the less aggressive avenue of growth, but even then he sees its stock price doubling over the next three to five years. Analysts are generally less optimistic about AT&T and Verizon, as one undergoes a difficult transformation into a communications and entertainment colossus, while the other remains almost singularly focused on 5G with a less-than-ideal set of wireless spectrum. 

After buying Sprint, T-Mobile’s future looks to be either grow fast or grow faster. Still, this week’s news shows that for a merger pumped up on American 5G zeal and patriotism, the biggest beneficiary just might be a Japanese billionaire short on cash.

(Adds pricing information in the fourth paragraph.)

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

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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