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SoftBank picking its battles with US national security committee

Reuters/SAN FRANCISCO 13 Apr 19 | 02:01 AM

SoftBank Group Corp has agreed to give up board seats and access to sensitive information, take a more passive role in startups and make other concessions to get government clearance for its technology deals in the United States.

These maneuvers come as the Japanese investor confronts a new U.S. law aimed at cracking down on foreign investors.

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SoftBank's investment style has made it a frequent visitor of a U.S. government group known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), charged with reviewing foreign investment for national security and competitive risks.

"We know the deals are going to be reviewed," Marcelo Claure, chief operating officer of SoftBank Group Corp, said in an interview with Reuters this week. "We have abided by what the U.S. government wants."

SoftBank likes to take large stakes in companies working on artificial intelligence, data analytics, financial services and self-driving cars - technologies increasingly viewed as critical to national security. This puts them in the crosshairs of a law signed by U.S. President Donald Trump last year expanding the powers of CFIUS.

Giving up board seats and access to private information would make SoftBank less of a threat in the eyes of CFIUS, giving its deals a better chance of approval.

"We would not accept this if we were in the business of running companies," Claure said of the concessions. "We're not. We are in the business of investing."

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Claure declined to provide specifics on investments where SoftBank has had to make concessions or give up board seats and the U.S. government does not comment on CFIUS reviews.

The regulations have deterred many foreign investors from even attempting investment in U.S. tech companies.

"Everything is a conversation with the government so you figure you are going to pick your battles," Claure said.

One regulatory battle SoftBank has chosen, so far, to sit out is regarding Uber Technologies Inc's board seats. As part of an $8 billion investment SoftBank closed in January 2018, which gave it a 16 percent stake in Uber and made it the largest shareholder, SoftBank was supposed to get two board seats.

SoftBank successfully completed its investment in Uber, but has not yet completed the formal CFIUS review necessary for the two board seats, Claure told Reuters.

As a result, more than a year later, Claure and Rajeev Misra, who oversees SoftBank's $100 billion Vision Fund, have not taken their board seats. The result is that Uber on Thursday kicked off its initial public offering with a board of 12 directors, not the 17 members long ago agreed upon.

Another three independent directors cannot be appointed until after Misra and Claure join the board.

By the time Uber's shares start trading on the New York Stock Exchange in early May, SoftBank may have missed its opening. When it becomes public, Uber's bylaws will change, erasing old agreements with its directors, according to Uber's IPO filing posted Thursday.

ALSO READ: SoftBank invests in Abu Dhabi's Mubadala's $400 mn European tech fund - FT

Claure said SoftBank may still follow through with seeking CFIUS approval, but added that "it hasn't been a priority for us" and SoftBank still has the access it wants to Uber's executives without the board seats.

BUILDING A TEAM OF LOBBYISTS

After becoming chief operating officer in May of 2018, Claure increased SoftBank's presence and lobbying power in Washington.

"The first job was to change the conversation with the U.S. government and explain to the U.S. government what is SoftBank," Claure said.

It hired former Ford Motor Co lobbyist Ziad Ojakli to improve relations with regulators.

ALSO READ: Partners at Softbank's $100-bn Vision Fund share losses, not just profits

SoftBank added a former White House staffer and a Department of Commerce deputy to its Washington staff last fall, and hired Jeffrey Dressler, previously a national security adviser to members of the U.S. Congress, as its national security policy director in January.

Even without board seats or more control in a company, SoftBank still wields a lot of influence. SoftBank at times requires companies to meet performance goals before receiving money and generally prohibits founders and employees from selling their company shares.

SoftBank last month unveiled a $5 billion fund to invest in technology companies in Latin America, where it will be well outside of CFIUS' control. Claure said SoftBank has already looked at more than 140 companies for possible investment and closed a few deals.

But Claure said SoftBank is not retreating from CFIUS.

"We will find ways to invest in the United States," Claure said.

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