The ideological battle over the fate of TikTok is provoking fist fights in the Oval Office, and a scramble among the country’s biggest tech firms to see if they might be able to come up with a workable pitch that would allow them to win approval to buy the US operations (along with New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and possibly more) of the popular Chinese-owned social media platform – the only real obstacle to a deal at a time when corporate credit is essentially free.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the app, which the Trump Administration is threatening to shut down in the US over fears of a “national security threat” (Chinese law forces all Chinese companies to cooperate with state security forces, provoking fears that ByteDance, TikTok’s owner, might be compelled to set up a pipeline of Americans’ private information straight to Beijing), has become perhaps the biggest political football at a time of intense strain in the bilateral relationship.
But amid the chaos and the geopolitical posturing of the leaders of the world’s two largest economies, America’s tech giants apparently see an opportunity, however unlikely, to circumvent opposition to further tech-industry mergers and seal what very well might be the last major merger in the industry for quite some time.
And with the world headed into a period of protracted slowdown, companies might as well take advantage of the free money, and lock in that future EPS growth while they can.
Pursuing TikTok would be an interesting choice for Twitter, mostly because the company once owned Vine, a popular video-sharing app that has been described as a direct forbear to TikTok. Twitter shut down Vine a few years back, a move that was widely denounced as a mistake by the app’s many rabid fans.
And then there was TwitTok! Twitter has had preliminary talks with TikTok about a potential combination with its U.S. operations https://t.co/mcHY1cNFrw
— Joanna Stern (@JoannaStern) August 8, 2020
Since anti-trust scrutiny is such a hot issue in the world of big tech right now, it seems every company that has reportedly engaged in “talks” about the prospects for a deal has a reason for why it might assuage regulators and lawmakers and convince both Congress and the White House to agree to the deal. Being the smallest of the three major companies rumored to be potential suitors, Twitter obviously has the best case from a purely anti-trust standpoint (although it seems reporters keep coming up with excuses for why Microsoft or Facebook could still make it work).
Plus, Twitter’s comparatively tiny $29 billion market cap means it would likely need help from outside investors – a great opportunity for Sequoia and the other big VC firms who backed ByteDance who reportedly were in talks about a deal to bring TikTok into the US under their purview. The deal would have valued TikTok at $50 billion, according to unconfirmed reports.
Because it is much smaller, Twitter has reasoned that it would be unlikely to face the same level of antitrust scrutiny as Microsoft or other potential bidders, said people familiar with the discussions.
Twitter would almost certainly need help from other investors if it does buy TikTok. The company has far less financial firepower than other major tech players, though it does have high-powered investors such as private-equity firm Silver Lake. Twitter started making a consistent profit in the past couple of years, but reported a $1.23 billion loss in the latest quarter. Twitter reported $7.8 billion in cash and short-term investments as of June, compared with more than $136 billion for Microsoft.
If a deal does ultimately come together, it would reshape Twitter. Although Twitter allows users to upload videos, the app’s focus is on short messages of text and images.
Like we said above, if ByteDance does successfully sell TikTok, it could be the last major tech M&A deal for some time that’s (IPOs, fortunately for investment bankers, have nothing to do with anti-trust). We wouldn’t be surprised if every big player takes a sniff.