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SoftBank’s $100bn vision a Marshall Plan for the digital age

You run out of superlatives when you consider the Vision Fund, the tech investment vehicle launched by Japan’s SoftBank and backed by some of the shrewdest investors in the world.
It has probably already passed the $100 billion target set by Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of the Japanese telecoms firm, last October. Whatever the final amount it reaches, it will be more than all the money raised by the US venture capital firms over the past three years. It will probably be the biggest specialist investment fund in history.
One way to view it is to compare it to the US-funded Marshall Plan, the aid vehicle named after the then Secretary of State George Marshall, which helped rebuild a European continent ravaged by WWII. The Americans earmarked $12 billion at 1945 prices, which the economists say is worth about $120 billion in today’s money.
While Marshall was looking to help rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by six years of war, Son is seeking to kick-start the next phase of the high-tech era, something the World Economic Forum (WEF) calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Vision Fund is a Marshall Plan for the digital age.
That is its allure, and the reason why it has been able to pull in some investment big-hitters, to augment the $25 billion pledged by SoftBank.
A dream ticket
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is the lead investor with $45 billion; Mubadala Development, the Abu Dhabi investment vehicle, is reported to be close to signing up $15 billion for the Vision Fund; smaller amounts — though still measured in the billions of dollars — are coming from Apple, Qualcomm and the private office of Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
That looks like a synergetic partnership: Middle East and Japanese capital backing essentially Western technological expertise. It could be the dream ticket.
SoftBank itself, and Masayoshi Son, bring their specialist deal-making skills to the party. And Son has done some big deals, winning the exclusive iPhone carrier deal in Japan and snapping up stakes in Yahoo and Alibaba. He also tried, and failed, to merge his telecom business Sprint with rival T-Mobile USA, but that deal might be back on the table again given his new financial firepower.
But there is one important sense in which the Marshall Plan analogy does not follow. The high-tech investment world is far from being a desolate wreck, like Europe was 71 years ago; in fact, it is the exact opposite. Valuations of tech businesses, especially start-ups, are vertiginously high.
That is where the first reservations kick in about the Vision Fund. Son has said that he wants to pull off a couple of big deals in the sector, but he might find himself overpaying, like AOL did for Time Warner in 2001 just as the dot-com bubble was bursting.
Most venture capital (VC) experts think that even the biggest and most valuable start-ups — like Uber and Airbnb — are pretty fully valued at the moment. How does the Vision Fund squeeze extra value from them?
Of course, it could be that the mere presence of a $100 billion cash-pile serves to keep high-tech valuations inflated for the foreseeable future, but that does not amount to much of an investment strategy.
The alternative is to act virtually as an incubator, identifying the Ubers and Airbnbs at an early stage, and then go on to fund and benefit from their growth. But then the issues become selection: How to separate the high-tech gold from the dross; and management, in how to administer and oversee all those small investments. The Vision Fund’s size could actually work against it in these circumstances. So garage start-ups in Seattle, or anywhere else for that matter, are unlikely to see much of the fund.
Tech transfer
For the big Middle East investors, the logic of investing in the Vision Fund seems obvious. With public finances under pressure, good investment ideas are at a premium and what better than the wave of the future represented by high-tech?
If SoftBank’s venture comes up with just one Apple (market capitalization $630 billion) it repays its investors handsomely and fixes the hole in their budgets for years to come.
But the long-term plans in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are not simply about generating a financial return. They aim to transform the economies and societies of their countries by diversifying them away from oil dependence and into the new age of high-tech innovation.
It will do Saudi Arabia and the UAE little long-term good if the cash ends up in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, but the technology, manufacturing processes and patents remain in Tokyo or California.
The Middle East investors should insist, as a condition of their participation in the Vision Fund, that there is a genuine transfer of technology and skill as part of the bargain. Then it can truly be regarded as visionary.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai