Billion-dollar busts: Which big businesses will be burnt by COVID-19?

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There are many excellent (and blameless) businesses that may be killed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stage companies, sports clubs, restaurants, airlines — no matter how well run these businesses were, unless the curve is able to be squashed, there are few who can survive on zero revenue for more than six months.

Then there are the organisations which almost certainly would have collapsed anyway. For these, all the virus did was place accelerant on a fire that would have engulfed them.

Take Mayfair Capital. A fund management business that made an almighty splash last year with a very prominent advertising campaign in major Australian newspapers. Last year, Crikey questioned the viability of the business, which is run by someone whose previously most well-known corporate endeavour was running a bankrupted ASX-listed media business.

Mayfair offered “sophisticated” (read: gullible) investors a supercharged “term deposit”-like return of 6% and proceeded to buy a bunch of speculative Queensland tourism properties such as Dunk Island. If you were to write a script for this, a business that wasn’t long for this world, it would be Henry VIII.

Alas, last week ASIC announced that it had commenced proceedings against Mayfair for the publication of false, misleading and deceptive conduct. And, to make matters worse, Mayfair has frozen redemptions for its IPO Wealth Fund.

Your writer suspects anyone who has invested in a Mayfair entity will be more likely to find a four-leaf clover on the sand dunes of Dunk Island than get their money back — let alone make a 6% return.

Despite the unfolding calamity, Mayfair founder, James Mahwinney denied that Mayfair was a Ponzi scheme, claiming “there’s a very big difference between us and what you’ve referred to there”.

“We have significant investments and what you referred to a moment ago, those types of schemes do not have any investments,” he said.

The definition of a Ponzi scheme doesn’t involve the existence of actual assets — rather, the need for new investors to pay returns to existing investors.

Then there’s the cabal of businesses who took money from the world’s biggest venture capital bozos, SoftBank and its Vision Fund.

SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son was an investing genius a year ago. He turned a US$20 million bet on Jack Ma’s Alibaba into US$120 billion. Masa, who’s still worth a hefty US$21 billion, may still have plenty of money but he doesn’t have much of a reputation these days.

WeWork, SoftBank’s US$10 billion bet, is almost certainly worth nothing (best case). Meanwhile, other SoftBank businesses are ferociously sacking staff, including View, which raised US$1.1 billion from SoftBank in 2018, and Opendoor which raised US$1.3 billion in the last few years.

Now Masa’s other big property management bet, budget hotel business Oyo, looks like it’s following suit. Last year, SoftBank valued the budget Indian hotel chain at US$10 billion and suggested it could be bigger than Marriott (current market value: US$26 billion).

Oyo’s founder, Ritesh Agarwal, is now looking like a greedier version of Adam Neumann. In the company’s last investment round, when the smartest guys in the room (Sequoia and Lightspeed) were desperately selling, Agarwal took a loan to buy shares in his own company. Now, revenues are zero and most staff are furloughed.

Bloomberg reported that Agarwal may soon be getting margin calls on his stake, while Masa, who personally guaranteed Oyo’s loans, looks likely to be on the hook as well.

Scott Galloway, who was the first to break the WeWork sham, exposed Oyo back in January (before many people had heard of coronavirus). He noted “Oyo has brought SoftBank’s unique brand of stupid with, according to great reporting from the NYT, corruption posing as naiveté. It’s malfeasance from a firm overseen by a 26-year-old who has been handed $3.2 billion, a mediocre idea, and tremendous pressure to be the next Airbnb”.

The Financial Times even suggested SoftBank itself could be wound up. Losses of US$16 billion in the Vision Fund could just be the beginning.

This article was first published by Crikey.

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