July 26, 2019 / 3:44 AM / 2 months ago

Breakingviews - SoftBank’s new $108 bln vision is broader, fuzzier

Japan's SoftBank Group Corp Chief Executive Masayoshi Son attends a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon - RC17F0D92E80

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - SoftBank’s new megafund, officially unveiled on Friday, is a fuzzier affair than its predecessor. Vision Fund 2 aspires to bring $108 billion of capital to disruptive and potentially market-reshaping technologies like artificial intelligence. If the first Vision Fund is a guide, it could alter competitive landscapes across a variety of sectors and create huge wealth for backers. It will also test SoftBank leader Masayoshi Son’s ability to stay focused.

Missing this time round are public endorsements from the allies Son signed up last time, namely the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund and its Abu Dhabi peer Mubadala. Together they put $60 billion into the first fund, which was launched in May 2017 and grew to nearly $100 billion. SoftBank, which is putting up $38 billion this time, is still talking to investors, so Gulf money could come later.

Meanwhile, not all of the names mentioned on its roster alongside the likes of Apple and Microsoft are actually putting in their own cash. Some are only committing to provide debt financing, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The absence, so far, of Middle Eastern money is mixed news. An approval stamp from the House of Saud gives other investors confidence; on the other hand some targets would rather do without the reputational risk. AI, for example, entails the attention of watchdogs like the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, so the fewer autocratic political backers, the better. Investments held by the Vision Fund in Uber and General Motors’ autonomous driving unit Cruise were reviewed closely by CFIUS, which can reject deals out of hand.

Regardless, Vision Fund 2 does not lack in heft. The $108 billion targeted so far would be close to the entire $131 billion venture capital investment in U.S.-based start-ups for 2018, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

The trick will be putting all that money to work. The mandate targets AI and “market-leading, tech-enabled growth companies”, but that latter definition is very broad. Everything from revolving sushi restaurants to Chinese coffee chains tout themselves as tech-enabled when raising funds. The risk is portfolio incoherence. Son will need to decide what prize he wants, and keep his eye on it.

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