TikTok owner races to salvage Microsoft deal after Trump vows ban

China’s ByteDance sees US move as ploy to push down price and force deal

US president Donald Trump said a sale to any party – including Microsoft – would not be an acceptable solution. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure, Jim Watson/AFP via Getty

US president Donald Trump said a sale to any party – including Microsoft – would not be an acceptable solution. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure, Jim Watson/AFP via Getty

 

ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, is racing to save the video-sharing app’s US operations by making a last-ditch plea to the Trump administration to allow it to sell the unit to Microsoft.

ByteDance has told the White House it is willing to divest its US operation in full through a sale, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. The offer was first reported by Reuters.

The appeal came a day after US president Donald Trump vowed to ban TikTok in the US, and said a sale to any party – including Microsoft – would not be an acceptable solution.

“As far as TikTok is concerned we’re banning them from the United States,” Mr Trump told reporters on Air Force One late on Friday, adding that he could use executive powers to formalise the decision. “We are not an M&A [mergers and acquisitions] country.”

The comments left some involved in the talks between Microsoft and ByteDance fearing that any hope of a deal had collapsed on Saturday.

However, others – including ByteDance executives – believe Mr Trump’s intervention was a negotiating ploy intended to compel the Chinese group to sell the US business in full and at a lower price than it had been holding out for from Microsoft.

There is no guarantee that Microsoft and ByteDance will reach a deal, but the two sides have been secretly discussing a transaction over the past few weeks, according to multiple people involved.

Microsoft president Brad Smith visited officials in Washington last month to see if a takeover of the business by the US company would address the government’s concerns over TikTok, some of these people said.

Microsoft has a limited presence in social media and believes a deal would allow it to enter a category dominated by rivals such as Facebook, one person added.

In private, TikTok executives and investors have speculated that Facebook, which is preparing to unveil a rival product in the US as soon as this week, has been lobbying the US government behind closed doors to ban the app.

Price tag

The exact price under discussion is not clear, but it is believed to be in the range of $15 billion-$30 billion, one person said. Another person said there had been no agreement on price or terms yet and characterised the discussions as “preliminary”.

It remains unclear how TikTok would separate its US operations from its European and Asian arms.

The US government’s Committee on Foreign Investment has been undertaking a review of TikTok’s status in recent weeks on national security grounds. The review, which is led by the US treasury department, followed growing concerns over the company’s Chinese roots and data-gathering practices.

As well as considering an outright ban and a spin-off to a US buyer, the Trump administration has also weighed whether to place TikTok on the so-called entity list run by the commerce department, to restrict its ability to do business in the US.

In an apparent bid to assuage the concerns of its US users, Vanessa Pappas, general manager for TikTok US, posted a video on TikTok on Saturday in which she said: “We’re not going anywhere . . . We’re here for the long run.”

The company also put out a statement on Friday saying: “TikTok US user data is stored in the US, with strict controls on employee access. TikTok’s biggest investors come from the US. We are committed to protecting our users’ privacy and safety as we continue working to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to those who create on our platform.”

ByteDance has also been in talks with a group of its existing investors, including Sequoia Capital and General Atlantic, about a deal to spin out TikTok. Some of those US investors may be able to take minority stakes under the terms of the proposal put to the White House, one person said.

Microsoft could not be immediately reached for comment. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020