Clarity missing from SoftBank's $100 bln Vision

SoftBank Group Corp Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son attends a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Can you have vision without clarity? When it comes to SoftBank boss Masayoshi Son, it seems the answer is yes. The Japanese maverick has unveiled the first close of his $100 billion technology fund, rustling up $93 billion in seven months: an unprecedented sum, raised in a very short space of time. If he can deploy that to find more gems like Alibaba , his most successful investment, this may turn into a bonanza for SoftBank investors. But for now he is keeping them in the dark on crucial details.

The Vision Fund is a juggernaut backed by Saudi and Emirati money; $28 billion of cash and investments from SoftBank itself; and pledges from Apple, Foxconn, Qualcomm and Sharp. If all goes to plan, this could be fantastic for SoftBank investors. The telecoms and technology conglomerate is metamorphosing into a venture capital giant. Son can now make more long-range bets on emerging technologies like the “internet of things”, without further straining the listed company’s balance sheet.

The prospect is enticing. SoftBank boasts an incredible 44 percent “internal rate of return”, an annualised measure of returns, on investments in Internet companies such as Alibaba, Supercell and Yahoo over the last 18 years. That may be unrepeatable: sector valuations have risen sharply and Son will have to hunt down some pretty big targets. Still, if Son’s team can come anywhere close, investors in the fund and SoftBank will both be happy. For the latter, however, just how happy they could be is unknown.

If this is set up like a traditional private equity fund, SoftBank’s share of the profits, or “carried interest”, could theoretically run into the tens of billions of dollars. Annual management fees could stretch into the hundreds of millions, or billions, too.

But all this is conjecture. SoftBank has not yet said what fees it will charge, or what kind of profit-sharing it will pursue, nor how long it will hold investments for, or to what extent it will use debt to increase the firepower available for deals. Vision will be consolidated by SoftBank, so details may dribble out in earnings reports. For now, Son is offering shareholders a big vision short on specifics.


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