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Hedge fund billionaire suggests breaking up tech giant Sony

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A proposal by a US hedge fund billionaire to spin off a chunk of Sony’s profitable music and movie business is shining a light again on what has been a long-time sore spot for the Japanese giant: electronics.

The once-iconic maker of the Walkman is rarely seen as anything but a gadgets company, with its name on televisions and DVD players around the world

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But the firm’s key moneymakers are actually its Hollywood movie studio and singers such as Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift.

And perhaps its biggest profit generator is something decidedly un-Sony — a financial arm that sells insurance.

Massive losses in electronics kept Sony in the red for years, faced with falling prices and tough competition from lower-cost rivals and more innovative firms such as iPhone producer Apple.

Sony’s PlayStation games console has faced pressure from rivals such as Microsoft’s Xbox, as well as a more recent challenge from cheap, or even free, gaming on smartphones and tablets.

“The problem with Sony now is that it is in the business of making things that have become commodified,” said SMBC Nikko Securities analyst Koki Shiraishi.

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“Sony’s strengths are many — good designs, brand strength. It has strong technologies… But you need new and innovative technology to lure consumers.”

Sony, like many Japanese companies that came of age in the booming Japan of the 1970s and 1980s, diversified its operations to include seemingly unrelated businesses with few synergies.

Critics say Sony and their once-leading rivals such as Panasonic and Sharp are too big to cope with their more nimble overseas competitors, which has led to years of record losses amounting to tens of billions of dollars.

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Still, the sector has been wary about slicing up businesses that encompass a vast range of consumer products, from DVD players to washing machines.

Sony has crept back to profitability after four years in the red, but that was mainly due to a restructuring that includes thousands of layoffs and asset sales, including its Manhattan headquarters for more than $1.0 billion.

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While the firm has long faced pressure to hive off the good from the bad in its business, the idea grabbed headlines last month after US hedge fund billionaire Daniel Loeb called for a spin-off of as much as 20 percent of its entertainment arm.

A US media report this week said Sony’s board had hired investment banks to look at the proposal, which helped push up its Tokyo-listed shares by 2.09 percent to 2,049 yen on Friday. Sony declined to comment on the report.

Sony’s chief Kazuo Hirai has so far resisted calls to slice up the company, saying he wants to drag the TV business into the black and calling the ailing electronics unit part of “Sony’s DNA”.

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Loeb’s volley marked a rare bid by an overseas investor to penetrate a staid corporate culture in Japan, where big firms are often resistant to change and are largely controlled by institutional shareholders.

Unlike in the US, shareholder activism is not common in Japan although there has been increasing pressure from vocal investors overseas in recent years.

“It’s unlikely that Sony will accept the proposal,” said Seiichi Suzuki, market analyst at Tokai Tokyo Securities.

“This is not the first time Sony has faced a shareholder who said ‘your electronics segment is not profitable so you should try to make money in other areas’.”

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But, he added, the move did “serve as warning for the board about how it runs the business”.

“It’s important for firms, especially big companies like Sony, to have discussions with shareholders,” he said.

SMBC Nikko analyst Shiraishi disagrees with some analysts’ harsh assessment that the electronics unit is effectively worthless. But he added that Sony would be wise to listen to those who call for it to cut back on areas where it consistently loses money.

Loeb’s proposal, which the US investor said was aimed at unlocking the profit potential of Sony’s entertainment arm, “make sense… but corporate decisions are not made based on immediate benefit and loss”, Shiraishi said.

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As part of its corporate overhaul Sony has talked about moving into areas with fatter profit margins, including a tie-up with camera and endoscope maker Olympus in a bid to tap the lucrative medical equipment market.

“You might see sales fall, but profitability will improve,” Shiraishi said.


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