The SoftBank investment Trump touted looks pretty great for SoftBank

The Washington Post

When President-elect Donald Trump announced Tuesday that Japanese corporate giant SoftBank had agreed to invest $50 billion in the U.S. and create 50,000 new jobs, he presented it as a triumph for American workers. But economists and analysts who have been scrutinizing the announcement suggest it might be a bigger win for the Japanese telecom and Internet conglomerate, SoftBank, and its billionaire founder, Masayoshi Son.

Analysts said SoftBank could be angling for lucrative benefits, including the regulatory approval to carry out one of the largest telecom mergers in recent history, between SoftBank-owned Sprint and rival carrier T-Mobile. It could also be cultivating a friendly environment for further technology investments Son is seeking to make in the U.S.

"I think Son must have thought how to use Trump and this opportunity" for his business, said Mana Nakazora, chief credit analyst at BNP Paribas Securities.

Shares of SoftBank Group Corp. rose 6.2% on Wednesday to close at their highest level in more than a year. Sprint Corp. jumped nearly 9%, and T-Mobile US Inc. climbed more than 4%. Collectively, the companies added billions of dollars in market value after the announcement.

Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday that Son said he would not have made the investment had Trump not won the election.

But analysts said that the $50-billion investment probably would come from a $100-billion fund created by SoftBank and the Saudi Arabian government — Son said as much to the Wall Street Journal — and that much of the fund might have been destined for the U.S. anyway.

SoftBank announced in October that it would dedicate at least $25 billion toward the $100-billion SoftBank Vision Fund to invest in global technology companies in the next five years. Saudi Arabia's public investment fund pledged to invest up to $45 billion in the same time period, with $30 billion coming from outside investors.

"Son must have intended as much as half of the Vision Fund to go to the U.S…. But he chose this time to announce it," said Jun Tanabe, a SoftBank analyst at JP Morgan Securities in Tokyo.

"Mr. Son already created the $100-billion fund and chose to invest $50 billion into the U.S. I suspect he would have done this whether the winner was Trump or Hillary” Clinton, Suzuki Kazuto, professor of international political economy at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, tweeted Wednesday.

A SoftBank spokesperson declined to comment whether the funds would be coming from the SoftBank Vision fund or give further information about the investment. Trump's spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Analysts suggested it would be difficult to deploy $100 billion in investment in global technology without looking largely to the U.S. and Silicon Valley. In 2015, for example, venture capitalists invested $148 billion worldwide in 8,381 deals, according to consulting firm EY. The U.S. accounted for roughly half of that investment.

"In 2016 so far, about 60% of all venture capital in the world has gone to the U.S.," said Jeff Grabow, U.S. venture capital leader for EY. "The U.S. would be the first place anybody would look."

Analysts said Son may be seeking to improve the chances of a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile. Sprint and SoftBank abandoned an effort to buy T-Mobile in 2014 after the Federal Communications Commission signaled the deal might violate antitrust laws.

Trump will be responsible for appointing the next FCC chairman. Speaking from the lobby of the Trump Tower on Tuesday, Son said that he wanted to celebrate Trump's election "because he would do a lot of deregulation."

"SoftBank's original plan may come true with the new FCC chairman," Naoshi Nema, analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald, said in a note.

Analysts also speculated Tuesday’s announcement could be an effort to smooth the way for other investments in the U.S. in the future, and specifically ward off the suspicion that sometimes surrounds foreign investment.

Instead of risking criticism by Trump, Son first paid his respects by showing that SoftBank would be investing in American start-ups and hiring locals, said Hideaki Tanaka, senior analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities Co.

"This could help SoftBank do its business in the U.S. more smoothly,” Tanaka said. “It could give an impression that his company is friendly to the U.S."

In the last two months, Trump has taken an unusual new approach toward companies, negotiating with the air conditioner and furnace manufacturer Carrier to keep hundreds of jobs at an Indiana furnace factory from moving to Mexico, and singling out gear-maker Rexnord on Twitter for plans to offshore facilities. He has threatened American firms that outsource jobs with "retribution" and proposed a 35% tariff against U.S. firms that do so.

Some lawmakers and Trump allies have celebrated the deal with Carrier. Peter Wallison, former White House counsel under Ronald Reagan and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said there isn't enough evidence yet to say that Trump will continue to single out companies. "We haven't yet seen a real policy that would suggest to me that is the way he is going to conduct his presidency."

But others have argued that Trump's actions represent the beginning of a policy of negotiating with companies on an individual basis, which in turn would create an incentive for companies to threaten to send jobs overseas in exchange for deals at home. Indiana agreed to $7 million in tax subsidies to save the Carrier jobs.

In a Washington Post op-ed last week, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticized Trump for delivering Carrier tax and regulatory favors in return for keeping jobs in the state, arguing that the practice could enable companies to hold Trump "hostage."

He “has signaled to every corporation in America that they can threaten to offshore jobs in exchange for business-friendly tax benefits and incentives. Even corporations that weren't thinking of offshoring jobs will most probably be reevaluating their stance this morning," Sanders wrote.

Matthew Mitchell, a senior research fellow at the libertarian Mercatus Center, said it's unclear what direct benefits SoftBank may receive from the Trump administration, if anything. But he added that the president shouldn't be involved in the investment decisions of individual companies because it risks making the U.S. government reliant on the support of companies to carry out its policies.

"I think we're getting into this world now where there's no longer a taboo about picking winners and losers. And to me, that's a big concern, because institutionally that's in some way what has set the U.S. apart from banana republics," he said.

Swanson writes for the Washington Post.

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