It has almost become a refrain: just what is Masayoshi Son up to? After plowing money into companies as diverse as Uber Technologies Inc., office rental specialist WeWork Cos Inc. and fintech lender SoFi, the billionaire chief of Softbank Group Corp. is in talks to buy as much as a third of Swiss Re, a 155-year-old reinsurance giant.
As ever with “Masa”, this has prompted lots of head-scratching, with some commentators saying he wants access to the insurer’s cash – a la Warren Buffett – and others reckoning that he’d like to create “the iTunes of personal finance”. There’s also a chance that he just spies an undervalued asset:
But there’s something else people seem to be missing here: Cars.
While Son’s seemingly random holdings perplex analysts, one consistent theme is his backing of the ride-hailing giants. SoftBank is among the biggest investors in Uber, China’s Didi Chuxing, India’s Ola and Singapore’s Grab.
And it just so happens that the $700 billion motor insurance market is reinsurers’ most important business line, Swiss Re has said. So you can see why it might be useful to make introductions between the insurance folk and the ride-sharing apps, especially as the latter will be at the vanguard of self-driving cars.
The roll-out of autonomous motor vehicles is probably the greatest risk facing the insurers, since people expect it will eliminate most road accidents. As the number of claims declines, so will the primary insurers’ business, meaning there’s less to reinsure.
As the industry tries to adjust to the self-driving future, the information gathered by Uber and its ilk could prove extremely valuable. Autonomous cars will spew out as much as four terabytes of data an hour. Getting those data before rivals might give a reinsurer a critical edge, letting it price offerings to primary insurers more accurately.
Much like the black boxes that insurers install in cars to measure on-the-road behavior, in exchange for lower premiums, Uber already gives drivers automated feedback on whether they’re braking too often or accelerating too hard, for instance.
There’s the possibility too that SoftBank might be interested in tailoring insurance apps for gig economy workers such as Uber drivers (at least until they’re replaced by robots).
From the perspective of Uber, Didi and the rest of the ride-hailers, seeing Swiss Re’s reams of risk data from different geographic regions could help them decide where and how to deploy autonomous fleets.
None of this guarantees that Son really will create something meaningful from bringing together insurance and high-tech. While his Vision Fund website talks loftily about the strength of its “ecosystem”, there’s little evidence so far of his portfolio companies collaborating. He’s yet to prove that he’s a true visionary rather than someone who got lucky with his stake in Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
But Swiss Re doesn’t look a bad bet financially. And if SoftBank does seize the chance to do something radical on car insurance, so much the better.
(This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.)