Hedge Fund Attack — Sony Breakup Looming?

I just reported on Sony’s first annual profit in five years. It reached that milestone largely thanks to the weakening yen and some belt-tightening, including the consolidation of businesses and the sale of its American headquarters. Now Sony’s back in the headlines: An American hedge fund billionaire known for starting big fights has called for a breakup of the entertainment and electronic colossus Sony, reports the New York Times, possibly setting off a battle that could roil Japan’s famously staid corporate culture.

For once it’s not Sony breaking and buying up companies, now they’re on the block. Reports the Times:

The call (…) will most likely be viewed by government officials and corporate leaders in Tokyo as a shot across the bow from Wall Street, just as Western investors begin piling into Japanese stocks (…) The hedge fund manager, Daniel S. Loeb, is pressing Sony into spinning off part of its entertainment arm, which includes one of the biggest film studios in Hollywood and one of the largest music labels in the world.

By now Mr. Loeb’s hedge fund Third Point has quietly amassed a stake of about 6.5% in Sony, making him one of the biggest shareholders. And better take him for real when he asks for something. Loeb, known for ousting Yahoo’s former chief executive and poaching Marissa Mayer from Google to run the company, also signaled that he would accept a seat on Sony’s board…

What does that mean for Sony’s imaging business? Too early to tell, but Loeb wants the prime assets, not the laggards. Even for a man like him it would take considerable efforts to turn around the financially lackluster imaging business. Still, writes the Times:

The investor believes that spinning off a portion of the entertainment business to Sony shareholders could sharpen the company’s focus and lead to higher profit margins, while helping to revive the core electronics business.

Loeb recently wrote he’s convinced that “Japan can regain its position as one of the world’s pre-eminent economic powerhouses and manufacturing engines,” meaning that more than anything else he’s interested in a long-term investment strategy rather than a few quick billions.

Sony would be the biggest bet yet for Mr. Loeb, an intense California native who built his name largely upon acidly written letters, berating targets for mismanagement and calling for change. Well, Loeb, 51, reportedly flew to Tokyo for three days of meetings with government officials, regulators and senior Sony executives. He hand-delivered a letter to the Sony’s chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, that praises a turnaround effort — but asks for more:

We also believe that to succeed, Sony must focus.

In other words: Loeb elieves that spinning off a portion of the entertainment business to Sony shareholders could sharpen the company’s focus and lead to higher profit margins while helping to revive the core electronics business.

With what cash flow?!

A Sony breakup could go in either direction. One would expect that someone of Loeb’s calibre and reputation sees the potential of Sony’s imaging business becoming one of the company’s crown jewels. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Interesting times ahead. We all know Sony’s one of the most innovative camera makers. It would be a shame should this drive be sacrificed to certain hedge fund ambitions.

One would hope Loeb is a photo buff. He could very well be the push to take NEX and Alpha onto the next level.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Very interesting !

    Speculation aside, Daniel S. Loeb represents an uninvited distraction to Sony corporate management. Short term turbulence in the Sony corporate structure is likely to put a hold on any new large scale technological developments. Hopefully, however, minor developments within the camera division takes place just below the corporate radar and is allowed to go on uninterrupted.

    Photo buff or (probably) not, Daniel S. Loeb’s interest is more like in recovering some of his losses in Sony shares, than boosting any particular Sony products.

    I wish the news had been about Sony taking over Hasselblad. Not that they have any reason to, or even should. It’s just wishful thinking on my part looking out for Hasselblad.

    But that’s a story for another day.

  • Ray

    An “uninvited distraction” for Sony management means they do something productive at another’s behest or continue to do little to nothing. The place needs a good shake-up and years of decline have shown its not going to come from the inside.

    • Bengt Nyman

      Sony has always been a risk-taker and in the “bleeding edge” of technology. Sometimes it pays, sometimes it doesn’t. Sony today leads the development of CMOS image sensors which are at the heart of the new generation digital cameras.