On Tuesday afternoon, Donald Trump emerged triumphantly into the lobby of his midtown office tower and threw his arm behind Masayoshi Son, the billionaire CEO of the Japanese telecommunications and tech giant SoftBank. The two had just finished a private meeting in the president-elect’s office, and Son was grinning wildly. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Masa of SoftBank from Japan, and he has just agreed to invest $50 billion in the United States, and 50,000 jobs,” Trump told the press gaggle, before tacking on a superlative. “And he’s one of the great men of industry.” The two shook hands. Of course, the day would not have been complete without a self-congratulatory tweet.
So continued Trump’s pre-inauguration deal-making blitz, which began last week when he and Vice President–elect Mike Pence cajoled Carrier into keeping 730 jobs at a plant in Indiana rather than sending them to Mexico. Like that bargain, which Trump had claimed would save some 1,100 jobs, this one quickly turned out to be something less than it initially appeared. And it may have revealed something even more troubling: How CEOs will take advantage of Trump’s desire to be seen making bargains to further their own interests.
First, it seems likely that SoftBank was already planning its big investment in the U.S. before Trump’s win. The money, Son explained, was coming from a $100 billion tech fund SoftBank had created with Saudi Arabia back in October. When reporters asked how he would create those 50,000 jobs, Son said he intended to “invest into the new startup companies in the United States.” In other words, he’s apparently planning to plunge more venture capital into Silicon Valley, as people tend to do when they want to bet on the global technology sector. SoftBank and its partners may use much of their money to buy up existing companies, as well. “In addition to startups, Mr. Son also has his sights on acquisitions as large as $30 billion, a person familiar with his thinking” told the Wall Street Journal.
There were other ambiguities. During the press conference, Son held up a piece of paper with the logos of SoftBank and Foxconn, which manufactures Apple’s iPhones. It read: “Commit to invest $50bn + $7bn in the US; generate 50k + 50k new jobs in the US; next four years.” This has led some speculate that Foxconn might be planning to open a U.S. plant, though nobody is quite sure. The Financial Times noted that SoftBank and Foxconn have partnered previously, and that Foxconn “confirmed it is in ‘preliminary discussions’ about a potential investment in the US but gave no other detail.”
For all the question marks, Trump got his headlines about investment and jobs, which were shared thousands upon thousands of times. And what did Son get? A one-on-one with the next president, and the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a merger he’s been dreaming of for years. You see, SoftBank is the majority owner of Sprint, which it attempted to combine with T-Mobile back in 2014. It gave up on the deal, however, once it became clear that U.S. antitrust regulators would never approve it. The government had blocked AT&T from gobbling up T-Mobile back in 2011, and by all accounts, the decision had worked out wonderfully for consumers as the smaller company began to compete hard on price and services. With Trump heading to the White House, though, a lot of people think SoftBank and Sprint might give the acquisition another go. Unsurprisingly, the Journal reports that “Mr. Son planned to tell Mr. Trump about what happened with T-Mobile, and how he had wanted to invest in the U.S. but the regulatory climate was too harsh so he invested outside the U.S. instead, the person familiar with the matter said.”
This is part of what’s so deeply worrying about Trump’s publicity strategy of cutting deals with individual businesses to keep jobs in the U.S. It’s bad enough that companies that refuse to cooperate when the White House comes knocking will face the risk of retribution. But it also creates an opportunity for a favor-seeking CEO to engage in some high-level crony capitalism. After all, in order to keep the good news rolling in, Trump needs a regular parade of corporate chieftains willing to stand by his side while he claims he personally convinced them to keep a factory open or bring their money stateside. Right now, it looks like any executive up for the task can get an audience with the incoming president and pre-emptively earn the good will of his administration.
And as Masa Son just showed, those CEOs might not have to offer anything more than a handshake and smile for the cameras.