Companies

Nvidia buys SoftBank’s Arm in $40-billion chip deal

Bloomberg September 14 | Updated on September 14, 2020 Published on September 14, 2020

It’s the largest deal in the semiconductor industry, but hinges on China granting regulatory approval

Nvidia Corp. said it agreed to buy SoftBank Group Corp’s chip division Arm Ltd. for $40 billion, taking control of some of the most widely used electronics technology in the semiconductor industry’s largest-ever deal.

Nvidia will pay $21.5 billion in stock and $12 billion in cash for the UK-based chip designer, including a $2 billion payment at signing. SoftBank may receive an additional $5 billion in cash or stock if Arms performance meets certain targets, the companies said on Sunday in a statement. An additional $1.5 billion will be paid to Arm employees in Nvidia stock.

SoftBank shares surged as much as 10 per cent on news of the deal and renewed talks for the company going private.

The initial payment from Nvidia marks a small premium over the $31.4 billion that SoftBank paid to acquire Arm in 2016, previously the semiconductor industry’s biggest deal. The Japanese company is expected to own less than 10 per cent of Nvidia following the transaction, according to the statement.

China approval may be difficult

Regulatory approval may take as long as 18 months before the transaction is completed and the deal needs sign-offs from UK, China, European Union and US authorities, the companies said. China’s approval may be particularly difficult given rising tensions with the US.

“Now Arm will become a US firm, and the conflict over semiconductors between the US and China is becoming fierce as China still controls Arm China,” said Koji Hirai, head of M&A advisory firm Kachitas Corp. in Tokyo.

In comments after the deal announcement, Chief Executive Officer Jensen Huang said his team “fully expects to spend time with the regulatory bodies in China, but have every confidence in getting approval for the takeover.”

He also addressed concerns the deal will upset Arm’s relationships with customers, including Apple Inc. Huang said he would preserve Arm’s “neutral business model” and wants to expand its client list. He argued Nvidia is “spending a lot of money for the acquisition and has no incentive to do anything that would cause clients to walk away.”

Nvidia said the UK company will continue to operate its open-licensing model while maintaining the global customer neutrality that has been foundational to its success. Nvidia will add its technology to the offerings licensed by Arm, the Santa Clara, California-based company said.

Nvidia’s rise

Under Huang, Nvidia has risen rapidly up the ranks of technology companies in market value and influence. Already the dominant force in graphics chips that make video games more realistic, Nvidia has carved out a slice of the market for data centre chips and is moving into self-driving vehicles.

Arm’s importance far outweighs its revenue, which comes from licensing chip fundamentals and selling processor designs. Its technology is at the heart of the more than 1 billion smartphones sold annually. Chips that use its code and its layouts are in everything from factory equipment to home electronics.

The acquisition is fuelled by the drive to bring artificial intelligence to everything that has an on-switch. Having succeeded in selling Nvidia’s graphics chips to owners of data centres to speed up image recognition and language processing, Huang is looking to make sure his technology helps spread that to everything from self-driving vehicles to smart meters.

“It’s a company with reach that’s just unlike any company in the history of technology,” Huang said in an interview. “We’re uniting Nvidia’s leading AI computing with Arm’s vast ecosystem.

Cambridge, UK-based Arm has carved out a successful niche for itself by being independent. Fierce rivals such as Apple, Samsung Electronics Co., Qualcomm Inc., Broadcom Inc., Intel Corp. and Huawei Technologies Co. are all licensees. They either use Arm’s designs as the basis of their own chips or license its instruction set, the fundamental code used by processors to communicate with software, for proprietary efforts.

The acquisition by Nvidia, also a licensee, is a challenge to that neutrality. SoftBank’s purchase four years ago went ahead largely uncontested because the Japanese company wasn’t a competitor to any of Arm’s customers.

Challenge to Intel

One client that will be directly challenged is Intel. Huang said a priority will be investing in Arm’s efforts to design chips for data-centre computing. While he has carved out a $3-billion niche in the business of supplying Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc. with graphics processors that help with their artificial intelligence workloads, Huang said he wants to speed up the adoption of Arm-based central processors, or CPUs. That’s a lucrative market dominated by Intel, which has about 90 per cent share.

Nvidia announced it will keep Arm’s headquarters in the UK and will invest in a new facility there to push forward AI research, educate customers and provide a place for experimentation in robotics and automation. Huang said that the commitment demonstrates how the acquisition will add to the UK’s technology footprint rather than detracting from it.

SoftBank’s sale of Arm unwinds another strategic investment in favour of boosting liquidity and enabling founder Masayoshi Son to focus on the more tactical investing he has said he wants to pursue.

A hands-on entrepreneur

Huang runs a company that has captured the attention of investors like few others in the past decade. Like Son, he is a charismatic leader espousing a long-term vision of where technology is headed. The Taiwan-born entrepreneur is more engineering-focussed than his Japanese counterpart, though, and often publically delves into the minutiae of semiconductor and computer science.

His latest successful recasting of Nvidia’s technology involves the processing of AI work done in data centres. The company’s chips are among the best at breaking up the manipulation of data into small pieces and then executing that in parallel at high speed.

Huang will also get a large footprint in the mobile industry and smartphones. A previous attempt by Nvidia to break Qualcomm’s dominance of that business failed. The biggest rival to Qualcomm in smartphone processors is Apple’s internal effort. Those two companies are among Arm’s biggest customers.Even without a presence in mobile, Nvidia’s value has soared in the past decade. The stock, which ended 2010 at $15.42 a share, closed Friday at $486.58. That gives it a market value of just over $300 billion, almost $100 billion more than Intel, the world’s largest chipmaker with seven times the revenue of Nvidia.

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Published on September 14, 2020
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