With today’s news that Softbank’s sale of Arm to NVIDIA is officially dead, and a NASDAQ IPO now in the works I thought I’d take a look at the company and see how it has fared with a pandemic, regulatory scrutiny and Japanese ownership. Note this is a brisk overview, I won’t be diving deep into its technology.
A bit of background, Cambridgeshire-based Arm originally listed in 1998 in London and over it’s 18 year floatation became something of a tech darling, becoming an 80+ bagger by the time of its acquisition and joining the FTSE 100. It provides licenses for microprocessor designs and related IP to tech companies, manufacturers and other OEMs, such as Apple. Japanese conglomerate Softbank purchased the group in 2016 for £23b in what was actually the second biggest tech acquisition in history at the time. The main motive of the deal for Masayoshi Son was a bet on the chips needed by all the “Internet of Things” connected devices of the future.
Performance under Softbank
One thing probably not a lot of people realise is that Arm is incredibly stable and profitable. The pandemic barely dented sales as the robust business model based on steady royalty streams proved its worth, its gross margins have remained above 90% and the company has a long track record of operating profitability. Since acquisition, Arm has generated almost $2b in free cash flow (the large profit in 2019 coming from the part disposal of Arm China). Margins have sagged the last few years as the company invested in many areas of growth and hired a huge number of staff (partly mandated by the UK Government to Softbank) but 2021 was a bumper year of recovery. The company has been less successful in its strategy for IoT, culminating in it ditching its IoT services related businesses to Softbank in 2020.
The independence of Arm has long been scrutinised because of Arm’s unique business model and central positioning in the semiconductor sector. Softbank’s acquisition was controversial, NVIDIA’s attempt even more so, with almost every major regulator voicing concerns and competitors lobbying to prevent the tie-up. This makes it very unlikely someone would be able to successfully takeover the company in future, and the market price may be dampened by this, unlike many other mid-tier tech firms that are common acquisition targets.
The company is forecast to produce $2.5b in sales in the year to March 2022, with $900m in EBITDA. Longer term Arm has lots of opportunities to capitalise on, perhaps even personal and data centre computing partially migrating over the Arm-based processors. Without the pressure of Softbank or the Vision Fund it can focus on what it does best in core ship design, especially as competition heats up. It is still quite reliant on smartphones however and as a result could be hit by a slowdown there. There is also an issue regarding their joint venture in China, which has publicly “gone rogue”, declaring independence and planning to develop independent architecture. This does present a risk to intellectual property, although some have speculated this dispute may have been exacerbated by Beijing’s opposition to the NVIDIA deal.
Investing in the company depends on your confidence in the company’s ability to continue growing, whether you feel Arm has been gutted and flocked by Softbank, as well as UK Government industrial policy.