Sprint and the cable companies

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Sprint, Comcast and Charter Communications are discussing an agreement for mutual support in providing a discount mobile telephone service.

Sprint is controlled by the Japanese conglomerate Softbank, whose chairman, Masayoshi Son, made his first mark in that country by launching a successful deep-discount mobile phone service that resulted in much lower prices for consumers there.  Mr. Son has already tried once to repeat this move in the US.  To gain the requisite size to offer a similar disruptive service in the US, he agreed to combine with T-Mobile.  This would have formed a third big mobile telecom group, after Verizon and ATT.  But the federal government ruled against his plan, on the grounds that joining Sprint and T-Mobile would reduce the number of big telecom companies in the US from four to three (violating an anti-trust rule of thumb that frowns on market shares above 25%).  The fact that Mr. Son wanted to provide more competition, not less, made no apparent difference to the regulators.

Hence, I think, Mr. Son’s very visible support for Mr. Trump, as a businessman who might see through regulatory clutter.

I’m not sure what will develop from talks among the three parties.  I don’t think this is simply a way for Son to extract himself from an investment gone wrong in Sprint, however.  My guess (as someone with too-high cellphone bills, my hope?) is that a viable mobile service with adequate national coverage will emerge from the talks.

If so, while this may/may not be good news for the companies involved, it is definitely bad news for both Verizon and ATT.

Masayoshi Son and Donald Trump

Masayoshi Son is the visionary entrepreneur who controls Softbank, an innovative Japanese communications and internet giant.  Several years ago, Softbank gained control of the US wireless company Sprint.  Mr. Son’s intention was to buy T-Mobile and merge the two, creating a third large national wireless company able to compete with ATT and Verizon.

The Obama administration vetoed the combination on antitrust grounds.  On the surface, this made sense, since the number of competitors in the US market would be reduced from four to three.  On the other hand, the relative market shares of #3 and #4 ares small enough that they have not made much difference in how the two giants operate.  Also, Mr. Son entered the Japanese wireless market in the same fashion, piecing together a national network out of smaller firms. Then he disrupted the existing oligopoly through very aggressive, consumer-friendly, price competition.  He created competition–and much lower wireless bills–where there had been none before.

His intention is to do the same in the US market.  From where I sit, government disapproval of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile stifled competition rather than promoting it.

My guess is that Mr. Son will have better success explaining his motives to the Trump administration.  A Sprint/T-Mobile combination would likely be good for us as consumers of wireless services, but bad for the incumbents, ATT and Verizon.

Intel (INTC) and ARM Holdings (ARMH)

chipmaking rivalry

The big division in the chip-making industry over the past 15-20 years has been between giant vertically integrated makers like INTC, Texas Instruments … which manufacture chips designed in-house and smaller digitally-oriented design firms who rent structural intellectual property from ARMH, modify it and have chips made in third-party contract fabrication factories like those run by TSMC.

INTC’s advantages have been the raw power of its chips and its manufacturing superiority.  Users of the ARMH framework tout the elegance of their designs that enables output to be smaller, use less electricity and generate less heat.

disruption by iPhone

The balance of power began to shift away from INTC and toward the ARMH camp when INTC decided not to make chips for the iPhone.  It may be that INTC management thought smartphones were a flash in the pan, as urban legend has it, or it may simply have been that INTC knew its chips ran too hot and used too much power for Apple to be satisfied with them.  In any event, INTC has been trying to reinvent itself since then, by improving its chip design while maintaining its manufacturing edge.

On the latter front, INTC continues do well; on the former, not so much.  Despite a lot of design effort, its low-power, low-heat solutions for the smartphone world haven’t been good enough to gain much traction.

This itself threatens the manufacturing operation.  As INTC steadily shrinks the size of its chips, each silicon wafer processed becomes capable of yielding more output.  At some point, INTC’s factories are potentially going to be capable of churning out more chips than the company can reasonably expect to sell to its PC and server customers.  The capital equipment used in chip making is so expensive–$3 billion+ today, maybe $10 billion+ for the fabs of a few years from now–that the factories have to run at high utilization rates to be profitable.  INTC has already said that next-generation (extreme ultraviolet lithography) technology is too expensive for even INTC to invest in by itself.

Hence the deal with ARMH.

three other points:

–presumably working with ARMH-based firms will help INTC fine-tune its manufacturing processes for mobile and the Internet of Things

–this may be the first step in closer cooperation between the two companies

–the arrangement has been announced very quickly after Softbank agreed to acquire ARMH.  Are the two connected?  If so, Masayoshi Son may have plans for much greater integration of the two rival firms.





takeovers and market price indications: Softbank/Arm Holdings

Softbank is bidding £17 per share for ARM, an offer that management of the chip design company has quickly accepted.  ARM closed in London at £16.61 yesterday, after trading as high as £17.52 in the initial moments of Monday trading–the first time the London market was open after the bid announcement.

What is the price of ARM telling us?

Let’s make the (reasonable, in my opinion) assumption that the price of ARM is now being determined by the activity of merger and acquisition specialists, many of whom work in companies mainly, or wholly, devoted to this sort of analysis.

These specialists will consider three factors in figuring out what they’re willing to pay for ARM:

–the time they think it will take until the takeover is completed (let’s say, three months),

–the cost of borrowing money to buy ARM shares (2% per year?) and

–the return they expect to make from holding the shares and delivering them to Softbank.

They’ll buy if the return is high enough.  They’ll stay on the sidelines otherwise.

Suppose they think that without any doubt the Softbank bid for ARM is going to succeed–that no other bidder is going to emerge and that the takeover is going to encounter no regulatory problems (either delays or outright vetoing the combination).  In this case, the calculation is straightforward.  The only real question is the return the arbitrageur is willing to accept.

I haven’t been closely involved in this business for years.  Although I know the chain of reasoning that goes into determining a potential buy point, I no longer know the minimum an arbitrageur considers an acceptable.  If it were me, 10% would be the least I’d accept if I thought there were any risk;  5% might be my lower limit even if I saw clear sailing ahead.  If nothing else, I’m tying up borrowing power that I might be able to use more profitably elsewhere.

Let’s now look at the ARM price.

At £16.61, ARM is trading at a 2.3% discount to the offer price.  An arbitrageur who can borrow at 0.5% for three months stands to make a 1.8% return by buying ARM now.  Ugh!  The only way to make an acceptable return, if the assumptions I’ve outlined above are correct, is to leverage yourself to the sky.


From this analysis, I conclude two things:

–the market is not worrying about any regulatory impediments to the speedy conclusion of the union.  Quite the opposite.  Otherwise, someone would be shorting ARM.

–buyers seem to me to be speculating in a very mild way that a higher bid will emerge.  If they had strong confidence in another suitor coming forward, the stock would be trading above £17.  If they were 100% convinced that there would be no new offer, I think the stock would be trading closer to £16.25, a point which would represent an annualized 20% return to a purchaser using borrowed money.




Softbank and Arm Holdings (ARM)

My thoughts:

–the price Softbank is offering for ARM seems very high to me.  That’s partly intentional on Softbank’s part, not wanting to get into a bidding war.  It’s also based on Softbank’s non-consensus belief that the development of the Internet of Things will be a much bigger plus for ARM than the consensus understands.

–I’m rereading the resignation of Nikesh Arora as a sign of his disapproval of the acquisition, not of Masayoshi Son’s remaining at the helm of Softbank

–ARM seems to be content to be bought.  And why not?  Holders of ARM stock and options will get a big payday.  Softbank has no semiconductor design expertise, so ARM will likely run autonomously under the Son roof.  Softbank is also apparently promising to keep the company headquarters in the UK as well as to substantially increase the research staff.

–A competing bid is unlikely.  That’s mostly because of the price.  But ARM management knows it would never have the operating freedom as a subsidiary of Intel or Samsung (the most logical other suitors) that it would as part of Softbank.  When the company’s assets leave in the elevator every night, any unfriendly bid is inherently risky.  Doubly so when it threatens a really sweet deal.  No, I don’t think antitrust issues would be a deterrent to a bid.

–Will the UK allow the deal?  The Financial Times, which should be in a position to know, suggests that the UK might not.

How so?

ARM is basically the country’s only major technology company, so domestic ownership may be an issue of national prestige and pride.  There’s certain to be some opposition, I think.  And crazier things have happened.  For example, France disallowed Pepsi’s bid for Danone on the argument that the latter’s yogurt is a national treasure.  In the late 1970s, the US barred Fujitsu from buying Fairchild Semiconductor on grounds that foreign ownership presented national security risks   …and then allowed it to be sold to French oilfield services firm Schlumberger.  More recently, the US scuttled the sale of a ports management business that runs Newark and other US ports to the government of Dubai, an ally, on security grounds.  The would-be seller was also foreign, P&O of the UK.

This is the major risk I see.