(Image: WeWork/Dalian Lu)

From all reports, WeWork, as a business, is basically dead as a long-term viable entity.

Sure, the brand will live on and tech startups will continue to drink subsidised kombucha. But the economics of the business, its perilous cash flows and long-term liabilities, means it’s unthinkable it will survive.

That makes the decision from WeWork’s only real backer — Japanese conglomerate SoftBank — to bail out the company completely and utterly baffling.

A quick recap: WeWork was founded 10 years ago by a guy who grew up on a hippie farm and a man who is fond of smoking marijuana on private jets. The business now manages more than 500 shared work spaces in 111 cities.

It also loses billions of dollars a year and has US$47 billion in long-term lease commitments.

The business has been exclusively funded by SoftBank since 2015. Since that time, the Japanese benefactor continued to increase WeWork’s valuation to a comical $US47 billion.

Commentators have described WeWork’s attempted listing as the most ridiculous IPO of the year.

In reality, it was probably the most ridiculous IPO attempt in history.

Some market watchers even lauded the public markets for avoiding the float — which is a bit like praising someone for not purchasing a house that is on fire.

When the float disappeared, so too did a US$6 billion debt-financing deal, which meant that WeWork would soon run out of cash. Usually, that would mean that SoftBank would be in the box seat to effectively buy the business for nothing (arguably, that would still be overpaying), and try to fix the situation themselves.

Alas, that has not happened. Adan Neumann (the pot guy and, until very recently, WeWork CEO) is heading to the Hamptons — effectively getting paid US$1.7 billion (yep, not a typo) to go away.

If there were any doubts that Japanese legend and CEO of SoftBank, Masayoshi Son (or “Masa”), has completely jumped the shark, this deal pretty much confirms it.

It appears that SoftBank (which is trying to raise a second mammoth investment for its “Vision Fund” venture) is so desperate not to look like morons for bankrolling this steaming turd of a business that they’ve committed another US$8 billion.

Even Lionel Messi couldn’t kick the can down the road this well.

Neumann appeared to have a bit of leverage over SoftBank, by virtue of his super voting shares; however, since the business is basically dead as a going concern, those super votes shouldn’t mean much.

But that didn’t stop Masa from paying Neumann nearly US$1 billion for his shares, covering his US$500 million debt to lenders like JP Morgan, and giving him a US$185 million consulting fee.

Yep, the man who smoked (no pun intended) more than US$12 billion in investor money is being paid another US$185 million to consult for the very same business.

Oh, and SoftBank won’t be the only likely casualty of the madness. With WeWork the largest tenant of commercial real estate in New York, real estate legend Sam Zell has noted that developers have “committed suicide” by renting the company so much space.

But at least Neumann can afford his own private island now.

Adam Schwab is the author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed and a director of Private Media, publisher of Crikey.

Peter Fray

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