• Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

Wall Street and tech billionaires race to buy banned TikTok

Wall Street and tech billionaires race to buy banned TikTok

A handful of American finance and tech tycoons are gearing up for multi-billion bids to buy TikTok after President Joe Biden signed an act which will force its Chinese owners to sell the app.

The Wall Street and Silicon Valley figures are led by Steven Mnuchin, the former treasury secretary who has openly said he wants to buy the addictive app.

The suitors also include former Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, who has been reported to have spoken to OpenAI CEO Sam Altman about a possible proposal.

Steve Mnuchin has vast experience raising money after decades in banking and financing hedge funds and even movies like Avatar. Getty Images

And there is speculation that outspoken Pershing Square hedge fund chief Bill Ackman could mount a bid. Even “Shark Tank” multi-millionaire Kevin O’Leary has said he would “like to buy” TikTok.

But all of them face formidable obstacles in prying TikTok from its Chinese parent company ByteDance’s hands and into American ownership.

ByteDance has a year to divest TikTok or have the app banned entirely.

But China’s Commerce Ministry said last year it would have to approve the divestiture of TikTok from parent company ByteDance — and that it’s strongly opposed to any sale.

And as a result, buyers appear unlikely to get access to the ultra-addictive algorithm — the technology that hooks users for hours on the app showing them a stream of videos they want to see.

That means a potential buyer would only get a brand name and a user base and have to rebuild the technology, and the team who creates it, from scratch.

A buyer will also have to raise billions. While a valuation of TikTok is not public, some analysts have put it at north of $100 billion with the algorithm although it would be cheaper without. ByteDance was valued at $220 billion last year, according to data from Pitchbook

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said the company isn’t “going anywhere” and is preparing for a legal fight to keep the company operating. REUTERS
Mark Zuckerberg, who runs Meta, trains for MMA fighting but isn’t going to get into a fight with antitrust officials, experts told The Post. Mark Zuckerberg/Instagram

Finally, any buyer has to pass scrutiny by regulators, including the Federal Trade Commission where Biden appointee Lina Khan has led a crackdown on what she sees as monopolistic practices by big tech companies.

That rules out Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta and Tim Cook’s Apple, which could afford a $100 billion price tag and have the tech expertise to build a new algorithm. 

However, a purchase by them would be “way too problematic,” an antitrust expert told The Post.

“Every single one of those companies is under current antitrust actions,” Joel Thayer, principal at consulting and antitrust law firm Thayer PLLC told The Post.

“It would be next to impossible for a company already under antitrust scrutiny to buy a company that would give them more power and market share.”

Snap CEO, with his supermodel wife Miranda Kerr, is unlikely to get TikTok. Tommaso Boddi

Even Evan Spiegel’s Snap, the parent company of SnapChat, which has a market capitalization of just $18 billion, could raise antitrust concerns, he said. For Snap, the financing would also be far more difficult.

One source close to TikTok told The Post, “No tech company in the U.S. could get a TikTok purchase through regulators. So you take a step back and there aren’t that many individuals who can do the financing, convince the board, and build the company.”

Mnuchin has been the most publicly interested buyer, declaring on CNBC in March he is “putting together a group of investors who could buy the app” through his fund Liberty Strategic Capital.

After decades in banking and raising money for hedge funds and even movies like Avatar, he has experience getting investment.

But he would need to bring in an entire team of technologists to recreate the algorithm.

Bobby Kotick ran gaming behemoth Activision Blizzard that created and built apps and games — and he brokered its $69 billion sale to Microsoft. Getty Images for Vanity Fair

If Trump is elected, Mnuchin could also join the White House as Treasury Secretary again which would take him away from the company, sources told The Post. Mnuchin declined to comment.

But Kotick may be the best situated to actually create an algorithm and build a technology company, sources told The Post.

In March, the Wall Street Journal reported Kotick had spoken with possible investors including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman about finding a consortium who could buy the deal.

The ChatGPT maker could use TikTok to help train its AI models if a partner such as Kotick could raise the massive capital needed to pull off any deal.

Bill Ackman’s special finance vehicle, known as a SPARC, could be the perfect tool to raise money for a TikTok bid. Getty Images for PTPA

He was the founder and CEO of gaming behemoth Activision Blizzard that created and built apps and games, until he brokered its $69 billion sale to Microsoft.

He developed relationships with deep-pocketed investors, sources told The Post. Kotick declined to comment.

While Ackman hasn’t stated he is interested in TikTok, Wall Street sources are buzzing he could use a special finance vehicle he created last year as a way to quickly raise money.

The so-called SPARC is a financial vehicle listed in the public market that can raise an unlimited sum of money and use it to buy a privately traded company like TikTok. 

Ackman’s hedge fund has already committed to put somewhere between $250 million and $3.5 billion as an anchor investor in the fund but he and his fund could inject more capital if needed, sources add. He declined to comment.

Jeffrey Yass, the Susquehanna founder worth north of $30 billion already owns 15% of ByteDance. The Yass Prize / X

Beltway sources are speculating another potential buyer is Jeffrey Yass, the Susquehanna founder worth north of $30 billion.

He already owns 15% of ByteDance — and sources say he has the cash to buy a larger stake in TikTok.

These people add that after Yass’s serious effort to halt the bill, including accusations of bullying members of Congress and meeting with former President Trump, Yass may now be resigned to its divestiture.

A recent report even suggested that Susquehanna may have an early version of the algorithm which would give it a technological advantage.

The firm’s deep ties to ByteDance and China make it well positioned to convince the board and the government it should get the app, these people add.

Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon had been in talks to partner with Oracle to buy TikTok in 2020. AP Images for Walmart Inc.
Larry Ellison’s Oracle already hosts the data of American TikTok users on its servers. REUTERS

A handful of other buyers — who had lined up to buy TikTok in 2020 when Trump tried to force a sale — could also emerge in the coming months.

Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon had been in talks to partner with software giant Oracle to buy TikTok’s US operations.

While that fell through, McMillon has kept up contact with the company. Zhang jetted to Arkansas for a meeting with McMillon last year, The Post reported, leading to speculation he could still be interested.

Oracle founder Larry Ellison hasn’t said anything about purchasing TikTok since 2020. But the company already hosts the data of American TikTok users on its servers.

And “Shark Tank’s” O’Leary told CNBC Asia in March that he would put together a consortium to place a $20 billion to $30 billion bid for TikTok.

Kevin O’Leary has said he would like to purchase the app — and would offer $20 billion to $30 billion to buy it. Getty Images
Zhang Yiming, founder and global CEO of ByteDance, jetted to Arkansas last year to meet with Walmart’s CEO. REUTERS

But the investor dubbed “Mr. Wonderful” has gone dark since then and sources told The Post they are skeptical he has the resources for a bid.

Microsoft, founded by Bill Gates, also tried to buy TikTok in 2020 but sources say it’s unlikely to get involved again.

Reps for Walmart, TikTok and ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Whether it is actually divested or banned remains to be seen. On Wednesday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew assured users the app isn’t “going anywhere” and that the company would be pursuing legal action to prevent a ban or divestiture — which could at the very least delay a sale.

Other sources note that if Trump — who recently said he was opposed to a TikTok ban — is elected he could try and get involved in negotiating a sale like he did in 2020 or try to halt a forced divestiture. 

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