One thing to start: we made it. After 203 editions, this is the final DD of 2020. For today’s DD, we’ve curated some of our best corporate finance stories to help you recap the year. If you missed our best of edition on private equity and hedge funds from Thursday, catch-up here.
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1. The extraordinary resilience of SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son
This year marked the second time in his career that Japan’s Masayoshi Son was pushed to the brink.
The billionaire, risk-addicted dealmaker behind investment conglomerate SoftBank, famously became the richest man in the world for a few days in 2000 before the bursting of the dotcom bubble wiped out almost all his wealth.
The mid-March rout of 2020 wasn’t as extreme, but for a few days it appeared that the market was going to take SoftBank and Son down with it, following an activist campaign against the company by hedge fund Elliott, reports on vicious internal back-stabbing and postmortems on its disastrous bet on WeWork.
To turn it round, Son did something he had never been known to do before: sell huge parts of his portfolio. But not before he gave a peculiar presentation on the “Valley of the Coronavirus” and compared himself to Jesus Christ.
About $90bn was raised from disposing of UK chip designer Arm Holdings, some of its Alibaba position, much of its T-Mobile US holding, and a portion of its Japanese telecoms business. With SoftBank’s coffers flush with cash, Son couldn’t help but revert to his old tricks.
The FT revealed that SoftBank was the ‘Nasdaq whale’, stoking the stock market with aggressive options bets on US technology stocks. Other SoftBank financial shenanigans we covered this year ranged from its secret circular financing to the mechanics of its controversial Wirecard trade.
SoftBank shares are up 73 per cent this year. It feels like Son is itching for his next big bet. The fundamental question remains, though, what is SoftBank?
2. Spacs: the blank-cheque blitz of 2020
No one had a glow-up in 2020 quite like the special purpose acquisition company, or Spac. Launching a blank-cheque company has this year almost become a rite of passage on Wall Street.
Spac-mania hit fever pitch in the summer, when hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman raised a record-breaking $4bn for his Pershing Square Tontine Holdings, and has shown little sign of slowing down.
We saw the biggest Spac deal on record, the most complex Spac deal to date and a wave of launches from some unexpected figures — shout-out to basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal and baseball legend Billy Beane.
The sudden rush to set up blank-cheque vehicles prompted team DD to do some data work on how much money some of the most prolific Spac sponsors, like former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya and ex-Citigroup executive Michael Klein, were sitting on for their dealmaking skills. As it happens, quite a lot.
It wasn’t all rainbows and roses in Spac land, however. Nikola’s debut on the stock market via a Spac deal raised questions around due diligence when short seller Hindenburg Research accused the company of “intricate fraud”.
The Spac boom gave us our favourite quotes of the year. “I just don’t understand why all of a sudden it’s OK for banks to make money, but it’s not OK for other people to make money,” Palihapitiya told team DD. It also led to one of our favourite finance memes.
We’ll be watching closely to see whether this generation of Spacs does better than its predecessors.
3. Wirecard’s stunning collapse
Earlier in the year, it wasn’t clear that any of the FT’s dogged reporting on Wirecard, the high-flying German payments company, would ever stick.
Every time the market got shaky, somehow Wirecard investors piled right back in. In June, that all changed.
The fintech group acknowledged the potential scale of a multiyear accounting scandal, warning that €1.9bn of cash on its balance sheet probably did “not exist”. No kidding.
Within days, the company was all but gone and collapsing under the weight of a massive fraud — its former chief executive Markus Braun was arrested and its former chief operating officer Jan Marsalek remains on the run. The company’s auditor, EY, faces serious questions.
We couldn’t possibly chart the full extent of the Wirecard rabbithole in this space. Go deeper with the FT’s Inside Wirecard section, this episode of the FT’s Behind the Money podcast, or this replay of DD’s Wirecard forum, where you can hear from the journalists who exposed it all first-hand.
4. LVMH and Tiffany’s salacious soap opera
The global pandemic brought the dealmaking industry to a halt in March. And it also created a scenario where many companies who had agreed to transactions before the market mayhem looked to walk away from those deals, or at least get better terms.
No battle captured that dynamic better than when LVMH boss Bernard Arnault tried to scare US jeweller Tiffany into cutting the price of his planned $16.6bn takeover.
But Arnault, dubbed “the wolf in cashmere” for his silky smooth M&A tactics, ran into an obstacle that he had never encountered before in a takeover fight: US commercial law.
In the end, though, the extent to which mergers would crumble beneath the weight of the pandemic didn’t reach the scale feared in March.
5. Investors gobbled up Silicon Valley’s hottest start-ups
The IPO floodgates for Silicon Valley’s long list of privately owned unicorns opened up in 2020. With market frothiness still a feature, we are gearing up for another year of big public debuts.
The market reception left questions over whether the listing process will need further disruption or if bankers were helpless in the face of frantic retail demand. Controversial surveillance software maker Palantir opted for a direct listing, for instance.
You know who didn’t mind either way? Venture capitalists. The biggest winner of which was undoubtedly Sequoia Capital, with the group scoring big wins on the listings of Airbnb, DoorDash, Snowflake and Unity.
Further east, the good times on the Chinese market faced an unexpected hurdle. The decision by Beijing regulators to freeze Ant Group’s would-be $37bn record-breaking listing put a damper on all the excitement.
Draft regulations by the Communist party would dramatically alter Ant’s business model as a high-tech matchmaker between banks and borrowers, and if the IPO plan returns, it won’t be as colossal.
Heading into the new year, a number of European start-ups from Deliveroo to TransferWise are preparing to tap the stock market. With the US and Chinese market still roaring, will Europe’s sluggish start-up scene finally show up in the public market big leagues?
6. TikTok ban: threat or politics?
Donald Trump’s trade war with China was a defining theme of his four years in power. But the battle between the White House and Beijing reached new heights when the US president decided to go after the popular Chinese-owned video app TikTok.
The FT was the first to reveal in July that the Trump administration was getting ready to blacklist the social media app’s parent company ByteDance over concerns that the Chinese group might inappropriately mine the data of its US users.
That kicked off a race between some of America’s largest companies and tech investors to buy the video app and save it from being banned altogether.
Microsoft was leading the mad dash, before, as the FT revealed, Oracle, the software company, emerged as a leading contender. A deal had to be done fast — Trump issued a series of executive orders that required a sale to be completed before year-end.
Amid all the chaos, TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer quit just months after joining from Disney. As a person close to Mayer put it to DD: “He didn’t sign up for this.”
Oracle ultimately won Trump’s “blessing” for a preliminary deal with ByteDance, perhaps thanks to the Trump-supporting credentials of its executives led by co-founder Larry Ellison.
Despite that, it’s still not entirely clear what is going to happen with TikTok and whether the deal will go through. And was this all just Trumpian politics or did TikTok actually threaten US security?
7. Untangling Brookfield’s complex web
For a man responsible for billions of dollars of investments in real estate, Brookfield boss Bruce Flatt was relentlessly cheery this year, touting the benefits of ultra-low interest rates and hiring former central banker Mark Carney to lead the $575bn group’s new impact fund.
But Brookfield faces challenges ranging from looming debt maturities at its Covid-hit shopping mall unit and a Congressional probe into a 2018 Manhattan skyscraper deal with the family of Jared Kushner.
That’s even after overhauling an unusual ownership set-up that was the subject of an FT investigation in February — a report that caught the attention of US lawmakers, and is the clearest look yet at one of the hardest-to-understand financial structures in the world.
8. Mind the gap: US and European banks drift further apart
The fallout from the pandemic meant that the biggest crisis facing the world since the 2008 financial crisis didn’t share a common villain: bankers.
Instead, banks raced to meet demands from corporations to keep funding lines open. In the process, debt issuance boomed and bolstered gains flooding in from new equity offerings. Fees came pouring in.
The M&A environment recovered by June and big deals were back on the ticket. And that activity wasn’t limited to clients. Morgan Stanley boss James Gorman struck a $7bn deal to buy asset manager Eaton Vance just days after closing a $13bn takeover of ETrade, highlighting a meaningful shift at the US bank.
We revealed recently that Gorman beat JPMorgan Chase to the Eaton Vance deal.
Power moves were also made by Jane Fraser, who is taking over as Citigroup’s chief executive and PNC’s Bill Demchak, a JPMorgan alum who has led the Pittsburgh bank’s ascent to the top of the regional bank charts.
By market capitalisation, Goldman is now $35bn smaller than its arch-nemesis Morgan Stanley. Chief executive and part-time DJ David Solomon will need to find some new tracks to spin for investors if he wants to hang on to his job in the long-term.
Over in Europe, banks managed to hold their own, even stepping in when US banks bailed on local clients. France’s BNP Paribas made aggressive moves to try to establish itself as Europe’s premier bank.
Credit Suisse reeled in the wake of a scandal that saw its chief executive ousted. UBS, its crosstown rival in Zurich, also turned to new management. The moves kicked off a shake-up of the industry’s top ranks. Fast forward to the end of 2020 and members of European banking’s exclusive club were still busy playing musical chairs.
With hopes for greater in-market consolidation among local rivals, bankers are expecting more dealmaking to come. Will someone pull the trigger on a transformative deal?
9. Saudi Arabia’s shopping spree
When the world got scared in March, the globe’s most aggressive sovereign wealth fund went shopping.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund decided that the market mayhem marked a good moment to flood into public equities in a big way. It came just as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was in the middle of an oil price war that was collapsing the value of the country’s most important resource.
Whether it was luck or madness, the PIF thesis proved to be largely successful. Strategic bets on recoveries in the share prices of companies such as concert purveyor Live Nation and cruise operator Carnival paid off handsomely.
But Prince Mohammed couldn’t get his hands on everything he wanted. The PIF’s months-long crusade to complete a £300m purchase of English football club Newcastle United from billionaire British tycoon Mike Ashley ended in disaster. The saga proved a rare counterpoint to the general truth that anything in Britain is for sale for the right price.
10. Dealmaker of the year: Mukesh Ambani
When global markets were gripped with panic and dealmakers were predicting a huge slowdown in activity, the Indian market proved to be the unlikely destination for the hottest corporate auction in the world.
In doing so, it put the global spotlight on Mukesh Ambani’s empire. With the rare opportunity to buy into Jio, a telecoms and digital services business, the world’s most powerful companies and investors lined up to buy stakes from India’s richest man.
By the end, 13 global investors from Facebook to Google and KKR to Mubadala poured $20bn into the company. “It became a FOMO-kind of situation,” one person involved told the FT.
That wasn’t the end of the dealmaking for Ambani or the conglomerate behind Jio, Reliance Industries, which also raised $7bn from a rights issue in June.
Once the Jio auction process was completed, attention shifted to selling stakes in Reliance Retail, another unit of his conglomerate. Again, global investors raced to buy up shares.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Ambani was forced to concede that full payment from a hastily arranged $15bn deal with Saudi Aramco last year was going to be delayed.
But the huge sums raised from the frenetic dealmaking allowed the tycoon to pay down Reliance’s debts and position himself as the most influential businessman in India.
And last but not least, a few of our favourite videos and events from the year:
DD’s Ortenca Aliaj breaks down the blank-cheque blitz of 2020 in this helpful explainer video. For more on Spac mania, don’t miss her digital event on the subject featuring Nikola board member Steve Girsky and CC Capital’s Chinh Chu.
Our resident capital markets expert Rob Smith’s memorable interview with short-seller Carson Block — watch it back here.
DD’s James Fontanella-Khan takes us through how a mega-deal at Occidental Petroleum took a turn for the worse in this M&A tale.
Volvo Cars: race to net zero marks revival of IPO plan
Volvo Cars has been waiting at the lights for years. The Swedish carmaker’s journey back to the stock market was halted in 2018 when Chinese owner Geely scrapped flotation. A subsequent plan to merge and float the two businesses was dropped in February. Now the company is considering an initial public offering. Getting a green signal will require a sensible price.
The last IPO plan stalled when investors baulked at the $30bn sought by Geely. Volvo has advanced since then, particularly on electrification. Shares in peers such as Daimler, BMW, Stellantis and VW trade on an average trailing enterprise value-to-ebitda multiple of 9. If Volvo achieved the same, it would have an enterprise value of almost $20bn, using figures from S&P Capital IQ. The company is likely to argue that its success in China merits a higher valuation. But its operating profit margins are about half those of peers.
Profitability should improve, as battery advances cut the cost of making electric cars. But Volvo has already benefited from a supportive owner. Geely, which paid $1.8bn in 2010 to buy Volvo from Ford, has given it access to funds and shared the capital costs of developing new platforms. That helped the return on capital shoot up to an average of 9 per cent over the past six years, well above that of BMW and VW.
A lot depends on continued collaboration with Geely. An outright merger was deemed too complicated because the complexity of the ownership structure made it difficult to agree a price acceptable to Geely’s minority shareholders. But the Chinese company will retain a big stake. The two businesses will jointly own the legacy internal combustion engine business and each owns half of Polestar, the premium electric brand.
Polestar aims to produce the first genuinely net zero car by 2030. That, and other goals, means that Volvo has some of the most ambitious climate plans in the car industry. Those green credentials could add some extra oomph. Even so, too racy a valuation will impede its chances of a successful float.
Lex recommends the FT’s Due Diligence newsletter, a curated briefing on the world of mergers and acquisitions. Click here to sign up
Commodities broker Marex looks to list on London Stock Exchange
One of the brokers with rights to trade on the historic trading floor London Metal Exchange is heading for an initial public offering as commodity markets enjoy the biggest boom since the early 2000s.
Marex, a brokerage controlled by two former Lehman Brothers investment bankers, said on Friday it was considering listing on the main market of the London Stock Exchange.
Should it proceed, Marex said the offer would consist of a sale of shares by existing investors and that it was aiming for a free float of at least 25 per cent, meaning it would be eligible for inclusion in widely followed FTSE indices.
London-based Marex employs about 1,000 people and is one of nine members of the Ring, the LME’s historic open outcry trading floor that is now threatened with closure after more than 140 years. It has a 16 per cent market share on the LME.
The company is controlled by JRJ Group, a private equity firm founded by Jeremy Isaacs, the former head of Lehman’s European operations, and Roger Nagioff, the bank’s ex-head of global fixed income.
JRJ has a 41 per cent indirect economic interest in Marex. It is expected to reduce that stake through the London IPO although it will remain a large shareholder.
People familiar with the plans said Marex was seeking a valuation of $650m-$800m. The company is about half the size of US rival Stonex Group, which has a market capitalisation of almost $1.4bn. The IPO could come as soon as June.
The company, which has been expanding aggressively through acquisitions, made pre-tax profits of $55m in the year to December, up from $46.6m a year earlier, on net revenue of $414.7m.
However, in 2018 pre-tax profits were just $13.4m after Marex took $31.9m of legal provisions related to a warehouse receipts fraud.
Marex makes more than half its revenue from commodity hedging services that help big commodity producers, consumers and traders manage price risk. Commissions from the group’s top 10 clients increased by 17 per cent to $49m in 2020.
“The attractiveness and resilience of our business model is demonstrated by our latest set of results, which showcase continued strong performance despite the obvious macro headwinds,” said Marex chief executive Ian Lowitt, who was paid $4m last year. His basic salary is almost twice that of the LSE’s CEO David Schwimmer.
JRJ Group and its partners Trilantic Capital Partners and BXR Group acquired a majority stake in Marex in 2010. A year later it bought Spectron to create one of the biggest commodity brokers in the world. The company has been up for sale for several years as JRJ has sought an exit from its investment.
It emerged in November that Marex had appointed Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan to help advise on a possible stock market listing. One of its no- executive directors is Stanley Fink, former CEO of hedge fund Man Group.
Marex said on Friday that acquisitions and expanding into “adjacent products” would continue to form a “central pillar of its strategy”. In November, Marex acquired Chicago-based equity derivatives firm XFA.
Commodity markets have boomed over the past year on the back strong demand from China, a post-pandemic pick up in other big economies and bets on the “greening” of the world economy.
‘A real man of mystery’: how Ian Osborne built a $1.5bn venture capital firm
When tech financier Ian Osborne invests in a company, executives must agree to an unusual clause: not to talk about it without his permission.
Such tactics have helped Osborne and his firm Hedosophia largely fly under the radar despite his involvement in high-profile investments and takeover bids over the past decade.
With early support from funds linked to media baron Michael Bloomberg, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing and the Burda family of Germany, the 38-year-old Osborne has quietly created a $1.5bn venture capital business.
According to people familiar with the matter, companies from Spotify, TransferWise and Raisin in Europe to Alibaba, Ant Financial and Airwallex in Asia have all received investment from Osborne.
One tech investor compares the urbane but reticent British investor to the well-connected PR fixer Matthew Freud: “He knows everyone.” Another, who carried out due diligence before working with Osborne, said: “He is the sort of guy who will turn up behind you on a flight to Rio. He is a real man of mystery.”
As one of the architects of the boom for special purpose acquisition companies (Spacs) — which raise cash in listed funds that then hunt for a company to take public — Osborne has helped turbocharge tech valuations.
Even as the US market cools on the phenomenon and regulatory scrutiny grows, Osborne is hoping to popularise such blank cheque vehicles in Europe with plans to raise as much as €460m with a Spac listing in Amsterdam.
Described by contacts as “obsessively secretive”, Osborne fiercely protects his privacy and allows publicity to be drawn to high-profile partners such as Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist.
Palihapitiya, a brash former Facebook executive, with a large social media following and a love of making provocative comments on TV, describes Osborne as “a very good yin to my yang”.
The moonshot machine
It is for the relaunch of Spacs in 2017 that Osborne is becoming best known — teaming up with Palihapitiya’s Social Capital to back the listings of companies such as Virgin Galactic, Clover Health and Opendoor.
Along the way, Osborne has amassed shares worth as much as $300m, according to a person familiar with the matter, boosted by the juicy “promote” share awards given to sponsors of the listings.
To friends and investors, he is a canny dealmaker and consummate networker, connecting rich family offices to founders needing funds to expand.
Others worry he has been at the vanguard of a wave of speculative cash, bestowing stratospheric valuations on unproven companies.
Virgin Galactic — which he helped take public in 2019 — opened the floodgates for moonshot companies with little by way of revenues to list through Spacs. More than 300 Spacs have raised $97bn this year, according to Refinitiv.
With the action now shifting to Europe, it marks a homecoming for Osborne, who splits his time between houses in London and Hong Kong, where he is a resident.
From Bloomberg to Zuckerberg
Born and raised in Richmond, London, the son of a lawyer and a doctor, Osborne studied at St Paul’s school, King’s College and London School of Economics, graduating in 2005 and going to work as an adviser to Bloomberg, who became a connecting thread through Osborne’s career.
Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg’s longstanding campaign manager and communications chief, said Osborne began working for the then New York mayor after co-hosting a dinner in London whose guests included actress Claudia Schiffer and media scion James Murdoch.
By 2007, thanks to Osborne’s connections, Bloomberg was addressing the Conservative party conference in Blackpool. “It sounds an easy thing to do but connecting people is a rare talent,” said Sheekey. “Dozens of people around the world that Mike and I have good relationships with were introduced by Ian. Global business leaders never meet without a go-between. There is no Yellow Pages for that.”
He describes a Zelig-like quality to Osborne: “His nature is not to promote himself.”
As international adviser to Bloomberg for the next four years, Osborne continued to unleash his networking skills, gaining access to people who would become his ticket to the world of tech finance.
“At first it was like, ‘what is this British 20-something doing in the midst of US politics?’ It didn’t make much sense,” said Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, who met Osborne in this period.
Initially, Osborne offered “advice, connections with people”, according to Ek. “But his Rolodex was off the charts for someone so young. The connection between politics and business today seems like an obvious fit but at the time no one was making the link.”
Osborne began to advise, and later invest in, Palihapitiya’s Social Capital after meeting him with Mark Zuckerberg in 2008.
Palihapitiya described Osborne as “extremely, exceptionally discreet and unbelievably trustworthy. He’s unbelievably connected. He is our modern version of a homeless billionaire. Ian is constantly working, is constantly travelling, and he collects people.”
In 2009, he set up his own consultancy, Osborne and Partners, that took on clients including DST Global, the venture capital firm run by Yuri Milner, the Israeli-Russian billionaire.
By 2010, he was helping DST lead investments in Spotify and Alibaba — where he had forged relationships with founders Ek and Jack Ma, respectively.
Through his time working with DST and afterwards, Osborne continued to run a PR and business development consultancy, advising the businesses of US tech billionaires from Travis Kalanick and Evan Spiegel to Zuckerberg. He remained close to Bloomberg, helping on an attempt to buy the Financial Times from Pearson in 2013.
That year, he was firmly established on the tech scene as one of the organisers of the hottest party in Davos — a “taxidermy” themed bash thrown with Napster co-founder Sean Parker and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
He had also started to work informally for then UK prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne, to whom he remains close, helping open doors in the US. During the 2010 election campaign, he helped prepare Cameron for TV debates. Around the same time, he organised a trip to the US for Boris Johnson, then mayor of London.
Osborne became the “ultimate co-host” — according to one person familiar with the period — gathering people from politics, tech, finance and the arts. It was at a dinner hosted by Osborne in 2014, attended by actor Ed Norton and Arianna Huffington, that an Uber executive landed in trouble for suggesting that the company could dig up dirt on a critical journalist.
Taking ‘IPO 2.0’ to Europe
Osborne set up Hedosophia in 2012 — named after Greek gods of pleasure and wisdom — aiming to specialise in earlier stage tech firms.
Early backers included family offices such as Germany’s Burda and funds related to Li, the Hong Kong tycoon, said a person close to the group, who added that it now has a more institutional investor base of university endowments, public pension funds and insurance companies from the US, Japan, Canada and Sweden.
It was at a dinner in Hong Kong in early 2017 with Palihapitiya that he pitched the idea for a new sort of Spac to give tech founders an easier public listing without the risk and regulatory baggage of a traditional IPO.
Despite being partners in the sponsor company, the pair did not split earnings equally, said people with knowledge of the situation, with Palihapitiya taking the majority of profits but also putting in greater capital. Palihapitiya also coined the new term for the Spac — “IPO 2.0” — which was draped over the New York Stock Exchange at the launch in 2017.
Since then, hundreds of Spacs have followed this strategy, launched by former bank executives, athletes and politicians keen to enjoy the almost risk-free upside of the Spac sponsor model. But even those operating around Osborne wonder whether the market has now gone too far. “The bubble is definitely bursting now,” said one.
The Osborne/Palihapitiya Spac franchise has been hit as the market has turned — with Clover’s shares falling more than 50 per cent from their highs and shares in Virgin Galactic — which has yet to make a commercial flight — down more than 70 per cent from the peak.
Osborne is determined to get his European Spac right, according to those close to the plans, cutting the financial rewards for the sponsor and bringing together a heavyweight board.
This month, he will also return to an early passion in the theatre, producing one of the first musicals to open after the end of pandemic restrictions in the West End — Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
He will need to get used to being centre stage — in Europe at least, he has no Palihapitiya to hide behind, and the scrutiny over Spacs in the US has started to raise questions for investors and sponsors alike over whether the market has gone too far, too fast.
Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw and Arash Massoudi
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