Sony Corp. Chief Executive Officer Howard Stringer has announced acquisitions worth $8.4 billion this year to bolster phones and content. That may not be enough to turn around a company heading for a fourth consecutive loss.
Japan’s largest consumer-electronics exporter will pay cash to control its mobile-phone venture with Ericsson AB, partner with Michael Jackson’s estate for music assets from EMI Group, and team up with Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) for patent rights. The Ericsson buyout gives Sony full access to the unit’s 6.29 billion euros ($8.3 billion) in revenue, adding to Sony’s $84 billion in sales for the year ended March 31.
Stringer’s efforts to bulk up profitable lines (6758) may not overcome the lack of demand in the U.S. and Europe for Bravia TVs, which forced the Tokyo-based company to slash its sales forecast and predict an eighth straight year of losses in the business. Sony has lost 399.3 billion yen ($5.1 billion) the past three years and predicts adding more this year amid competition with Apple and Samsung Electronics Inc. (005930)
“What Stringer needs to do is to fix the TV business, not pursue acquisitions,” said Mitsushige Akino, who oversees about $600 million in Tokyo at Ichiyoshi Investment Management Co. “Acquisitions aren’t going to bring back growth.”
Michael Jackson’s Estate
Sony has been hobbled by a stronger yen that reached a postwar high, waning sales, a Japan earthquake that crippled factories and Thailand flooding that cut production.
Sony, worth $100 billion in September 2000, is now valued at $18 billion, compared with Cupertino, California-based Apple at $364 billion and Samsung at $137 billion. Last month, Sony predicted 90 billion yen in losses in the year ending in March, reversing an earlier forecast for a profit of 60 billion yen.
Sony has announced nine acquisitions this year, the same as last year. The spending is more than three times greater than the prior three years combined, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The biggest deal is the $4.5 billion purchase of patents owned by Nortel Networks Corp. for access to technologies used in mobile phones and tablets. Sony partnered with Apple, Microsoft, Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), Ericsson and EMC Corp. in that bid, announced in July.
Jackson’s estate, billionaire David Geffen, Mubadala Development Co. PJSC and Blackstone Group joined Sony in agreeing to buy EMI Music Publishing from Citigroup Inc. for $2.2 billion.
“Acquisition is the wrong direction for Sony,” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. in Tokyo, which manages $3 billion. “Sony must concentrate only on a few electronic products, maybe even get out of the manufacturing business.”
Sony Music, featuring Jackson, Jimi Hendrix and Kelly Clarkson, was the second-biggest contributor of operating income at Sony after financial services during the fiscal year that ended in March. Sony Pictures, producer of “The Smurfs,” “The Social Network” and “Spider-Man,” was the third-biggest.
In October, the maker of Xperia phones agreed to spend $1.5 billion in cash to purchase Ericsson’s 50 percent stake in their mobile-phone venture and integrate the smartphone business with its gaming and tablet offerings.
Sony had $16.9 billion of cash and equivalents at the end of September, according to Bloomberg data.
“We will consider mergers and acquisitions in any area and business that is necessary for growth so as to strengthen our existing operations and technology and create a new business,” Mami Imada, a Sony spokeswoman, said by phone.
Suwon, South Korea-based Samsung, with $18.4 billion of cash and equivalents on Sept. 30, made 16 acquisitions this year, totaling $831 million. The only acquisition by Apple, which had $81.6 billion on Sept. 24, was partnering with Sony in the Nortel bid.
“Stringer is buying time by purchasing companies with appreciating technology,” said Naoki Fujiwara, who helps oversee $6 billion at Shinkin Asset Management Co. in Tokyo. “The company is spending its cash to strengthen its technology and service contents.”
Sony’s TV business has lost 480 billion yen in the past seven years and is forecast to lose another 175 billion yen in the year ending in March. Sony is the world’s No. 3 TV maker, trailing Samsung and LG Electronics Inc. (066570), based in Seoul.
‘TV is Key’
The maker of Bravia TVs lowered its annual sales projection to 20 million sets from 22 million and said it was taking a 50 billion-yen charge for streamlining the TV operation.
The company is countering with plans to write down the value of some facilities, reduce the number of models and cut expenses at its marketing units.
“I have unflagging resolve” to turn the TV business around, Executive Deputy President Kazuo Hirai said Nov. 2. Sony’s management “feels a sense of crisis” about the unit’s losses, he said.
TV makers also face what Credit Suisse called a “generational culture shift surrounding video consumption.” Teens live in an Internet-based video culture that doesn’t depend on cable and satellite broadcasts, and they are satisfied with “small-screen experiences” and lower picture quality, the analysts led by New York-based Stefan Anninger said in the Nov. 28 report.
‘Apple Make Movie?’
Yet Keita Wakabayashi, an analyst at Mito Securities Co. in Tokyo, said TVs are “the business that Sony can’t exit.”
“Television is the key,” said Wakabayashi, who doesn’t rate Sony. “It is at the center of the strategy to integrate hardware and software.”
That integration will help Sony take on rivals, including Apple, Stringer said last month at Berlin’s annual consumer electronics fair. He can draw on music from 13 U.S. labels and movies from Sony Pictures Classics, Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures.
“Apple makes an iPad, but does it make a movie?” he said. “We will prove that it’s not who makes the tablet first who counts, but who makes it better.”
Sony sells music and movies through Apple’s iTunes store, keeping 70 percent of the sales while Apple gets the remaining 30 percent. It also is expanding its online-music business by forging a partnership with Google Inc.
Sony needs to do more to “blend” those assets with its hardware in order to compete with its bigger rivals, Akino said.
“The company’s culture is to polish the technology,” he said. “Stringer knows what to focus on. The company doesn’t have the speed to catch up with Apple and Samsung.”
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