Loeb's Misguided Pressure on Sony
For a savvy New York hedge fund manager, Daniel Loeb sure is missing the plot on Sony Corp.
Loeb's Third Point fund, which holds $1.1 billion of Sony shares, is prodding the Japanese giant to sell as much as 20 percent of its entertainment business and focus on electronics.
But other than film blockbusters such as "Skyfall” or “The Amazing Spider-Man,” what does Sony really have going for it? When the company posted its first profit in years in the fiscal year ended March 31, entertainment was among the only bright spots. Its electronics business is missing in action. Years after Apple Inc. changed the world, Sony still hasn't come out with a globally competitive answer to the iPod, iPhone or iPad.
Sony's problem isn't the economy or the strong yen, but that it long ago stopped dreaming up game-changing products. That left a void that Apple and South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. easily filled. Instead of focusing on innovation, Sony's chief executives, Howard Stringer and, more recently, Kazuo Hirai, sought to cut costs and streamline operations.
Yet the company needs drastic change to avoid irrelevance and it's hard to see how an insider such as Hirai can engineer it. It is even more difficult to understand why investors such as Loeb don't see that. Frankly, the only answer for Sony may be for it to be acquired.
It's blasphemy even to raise this possibility. Sony is synonymous with Japan's rise from the ashes of World War II and has a unique place in the national psyche. Yet Apple has what Sony once did: the "cool factor" sought by consumers. But Sony has what Apple doesn't: mountains of content. The word "synergies" makes eyes roll, though Apple and Sony are a good match. Perhaps Samsung, too.
These days, Sony is looking like Microsoft Corp., which was slow to realize how Google Inc. and Apple were making it more Old Economy than New Economy. It took Sony far too long to understand the threat from more innovative and nimble competitors. Just wait until China's technology industry gets its act together.
Investors such as Loeb are free to recommend half measures in hopes of returning Sony to greatness. But there's no ignoring that a company that once prided itself on being the one and only is now just one of many. And a troubled one at that.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)