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Billionaire jokes he has no money as he sells art, lends stock

[TOKYO] One of Japan's richest men is raising more questions about his wealth.

Yusaku Maezawa, the founder and largest shareholder of the country's online fashion shopping site Zozo, said on Twitter that he's selling more of his notable art collection to raise money. That comes as he pledged an usually high percentage of his stock holdings - 88 per cent - as collateral to banks including UBS Group AG and Nomura Holdings Inc.

The 43-year old Maezawa earned a reputation as one of the world's biggest spenders in recent years, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into everything from Basquiat paintings to a Herm├Ęs-upholstered private jet and a down payment for a ride on Elon Musk's rocket around the moon. But with Zozo reeling from a series of strategic missteps, his latest comments have left many wondering whether his days as a high-spender could be over.

"Yes, I have no money. I spend it so quickly," he tweeted on Sunday - with a smiley face - when asked on Twitter about his finances. He later said he needs funds to finance more lavish cash giveaways to his Twitter supporters, which have earned him millions of followers.

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Zozo didn't immediately provide further comment. Maezawa's net worth is currently estimated at US$1.4 billion, taking into account the pledged shares, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The latest controversy comes less than two weeks after Mr Maezawa returned to Twitter. In February, he announced he was taking a break from tweeting to "focus on my actual job."

Zozo has lost more than 50 per cent of its market value since peaking in July as its body-measuring Zozosuit failed to ignite sales growth and a separate discount programme ended up enraging partner clothing brands. The stock had rallied about 4,000 per cent over the prior decade.

Mr Maezawa, who owns 36 per cent of Zozo's outstanding shares, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, has steadily increased the amount of his stock holdings pledged as collateral in loan agreements to banks. The ratio was 88 per cent in February, up from 79 per cent a year ago and 69 per cent two years ago, according to regulatory filings with the nation's financial watchdog. Julius Baer Group and Mizuho Financial Group are also mentioned in the filings as his counterparties.

Pledging shares as collateral is a normal practice for large stock holders, who get to maintain their voting rights while financing loans to purchase other assets. But Mr Maezawa's ratio of pledged shares is unusually high compared to other founders in Japan and Asia, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son has pledged about a third of his stock holdings in his company, filings show. Rakuten's Hiroshi Mikitani did not pledge any shares, and neither did Fast Retailing boss Tadashi Yanai, who has regularly traded jabs with Mr Maezawa over the future of fashion shopping.

Mr Maezawa was dubbed "the art world's new rock star" in 2017 by Christie's after a string of high-profile purchases. But over the weekend, he announced he would be selling works including an Andy Warhol painting at Sotheby's auction on May 16 in New York. In April, the auction house also sold works recently owned by Mr Maezawa, although he has not publicly acknowledged that sale.

The entrepreneur is a crucial piece of the funding for Mr Musk's upcoming rocket to the moon, which is scheduled to take place in 2023. His SpaceX down payment had a "material" impact on the development of the project, which is estimated to cost about US$5 billion, Mr Musk said in September. Mr Maezawa and Space X did not immediately respond to questions about whether additional investment will be required from the Japanese entrepreneur.

Mr Maezawa continues to show his bravado in the face of questions about his wealth. On Tuesday, he tweeted a picture of himself with a statue of a giant middle finger, a controversial piece located in front of Milan's stock exchange that became a symbol of protest against bankers following the financial crises since 2008.

"Art is liberty," Mr Maezawa said in the tweet.

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