Aug 21, 2020 - Economy & Business

Setting the odds on a TikTok deal

A tiktok logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The TikTok shot clock is down to just 25 days, by which time it either has a deal for its U.S. business or has a presidential shutdown notice pinned to its back.

The state of play: Everyone is taking this timeline very seriously. It's possible that President Trump would give an extension, or find another rhetorical wriggle to save millennial face, but those close to the situation say it's a risk they have no intention of taking.

  • This situation is unique, which means regular M&A rules don't really apply. The negotiations are trilateral, but perhaps thought of as quadrilateral. So, with all of that in mind, here are the current odds:
Microsoft: 2-1

Microsoft was first to this party, spending weeks negotiating with the White House before word of its involvement leaked. When the shot clock began, it felt it had its D.C. ducks in order, giving it a chance to work unimpeded with ByteDance, TikTok's parent company in China, which appeared to have a binary choice of Microsoft or bust.

  • It remains the favorite, with by far the largest bankroll, but is no longer the only legitimate contender.
Oracle: 5-2

This is about Oracle's desire to dominate in the cloud. And it doesn't hurt that Oracle chairman Larry Ellison and CEO Safra Catz are presidential pals. Catz also is on the board of Walt Disney Co., the former home of TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer. Its involvement is very serious, but it got a late start.

  • One wildcard is Oracle's apparent plan to partner with existing several U.S. VC firms that have current stakes in ByteDance. That helps Oracle in terms of affording the deal, but may make it harder to prove separation from China.
Twitter: 20-1

Twitter really has been kicking the tires, which is Jack Dorsey's way of admitting he really messed up by killing Vine instead of nurturing it. And it makes all sorts of synergistic sense.

But the challenges are huge. For starters, Twitter isn't rich enough to just reach into its checkbook. It either needs a financial sponsor or other way to avoid ByteDance from maintaining an equity interest. And then there's the whole Twitter vs. Trump drama — and this President is unlikely to separate the personal from the political.

No deal at all: 30-1

ByteDance is between a rock and a hard place, and has a fiduciary duty to get value for TikTok. But it could decide that no deal is better than a bad deal, if the politics at home get too hot. There's also the possibility that it will reach an agreement, but not one that the White House approves of.

  • Oracle involvement makes the consummation of a deal much more likely, because it should boost the price, and ByteDance gets the consolation prize of TikTok business outside of the four or five countries expected to be carved out.

The bottom line: There's never been a deal process like this before. So if this was Vegas, all bets might be off.

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