It would be one of the greatest startup investments of all time. Masayoshi Son, riding high in the klieg lights of the 1990s dot-com bubble, invested $20 million dollars into a fledgling Hong Kong-based startup called Alibaba. That $20 million investment into the Chinese e-commerce business would go on to be worth about $120 billion for SoftBank, which still retains more than a quarter ownership stake today.
That early check and the rise, fall and rise of Son and Alibaba’s Jack Ma helped to cement an intricately connected partnership that has endured decades of ferocious change in the tech industry. Ma joined SoftBank’s board in 2007, and the two have been tech titans together ever since.
So it is notable and worth a minute of reflection that SoftBank announced overnight that Jack Ma would be leaving SoftBank’s board after almost 14 years.
In some ways, perhaps the news shouldn’t be all that surprising. Jack Ma has been receding from many of his duties, most notably leaving the chairmanship of Alibaba last year.
Yet, one can’t help connect the various dots of news that hover between the two companies and not realize that the partnership that has endured so much is now increasingly fraying, and due to forces far beyond the ken of the two dynamos.
On one hand, there is a pecuniary point: SoftBank has been rapidly selling Alibaba shares the past few years after decades of going long as it attempts to shore up its balance sheet amidst intense financial challenges. According to Bloomberg in March, SoftBank intended to sell $14 billion of its Alibaba shares, and that was after $11 billion in realized returns on Alibaba stock in 2019 from a deal consummated in 2016. It’s just a bit awkward for Ma to be sitting on a board that is actively selling his own legacy.
Yet, there is more here. Jack Ma has become a figure in the fight against COVID-19, and has burnished China’s image (and his own) of responding globally to the crisis. In the process, though, there has been blowback, as concerns about the quality of face masks and other goods have been raised by health authorities.
And of course, there is the deepening trade war, not just between the United States and China, but also between Japan and China. Japan’s government is increasingly looking for a way to find a “China exit” and become more self-sufficient in its own supply chains and less financially dependent on Chinese capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been seeking out avenues of decoupling the U.S. from China. Overnight, the largest chip fab in the world, TSMC, announced that it would no longer accept orders from China’s Huawei following new export controls put in place by the U.S. last week and its announcement of a new, $12 billion chip fab plant in Arizona.
SoftBank itself has gotten caught up in these challenges. As an international conglomerate, and with the Vision Fund itself officially incorporated in Jersey, it has confronted the tightening screws of U.S. regulation of foreign ownership of critical technology companies through mechanisms like CFIUS. Its acquisition of ARM Holdings a few years ago may not have been completed if it had tried today, given the environment in the U.K. or the U.S.
So it’s not just about an investor and his entrepreneur breaking some ties after two decades in business together. It’s about the fraying of the very globalization that powered the first wave of tech companies — that a Japanese conglomerate with major interests in the U.S. and Europe could invest in a Hong Kong / China startup and reap huge rewards. That tech world and the divide of the internet and the world’s markets continues unabated.