Apr 4, 2024 - Economy

Government pensions have investments in TikTok owner ByteDance

Illustration of the eyes emoji with the Tik Tok logo as the pupils.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Government pension funds throughout the country have a stake in the future of TikTok, according to a new analysis.

Why it matters: Congress is considering legislation that would force China-based ByteDance to sell the social entertainment app's U.S. operation or shut it down.

  • President Biden has said he would sign it.

State of play: At least 21 state and local retirement funds have an indirect investment in ByteDance, according to the Equable Institute, a bipartisan nonprofit that provides research on pensions.

  • Most of those are via private equity holdings, an asset class that makes up about 17% of public pension assets overall, according to actuarial firm Milliman.

Between the lines: The Equable list, which is based on publicly available reports, is not comprehensive. The ByteDance backers include:

  • Retiree funds in Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Washington, Hawaii, California, Oregon and Virginia.

What they're saying: "They're all over the country in every political flavor that our country has to offer," Equable executive director Anthony Randazzo tells Axios.

  • Determining the value of the ByteDance investments is independently unachievable — but in most cases the public pension funds provided about $50 million to $100 million to the private equity investors to allocate how they see fit, Randazzo says.

Reality check: In no case do the ByteDance investments represent more than a sliver of each pension fund's overall assets.

  • "It's not going to make or break anybody," Randazzo says, noting that each ByteDance exposure would be well under 1% of the fund's overall assets. But "just because it's a small stake doesn't mean it doesn't matter."

The big picture: Institutional investors, like pension funds, have been facing political pressure to stop making investments deemed by activists as problematic.

  • For example, climate activists have pressured fund managers to exit investments in fossil fuels.

Zoom in: Doing so, especially in a case like ByteDance, can be easier said than done.

  • For one thing, investors can make allocation commitments to funds years before that fund invests in an asset, Randazzo noted.
  • The pension funds' interest in ByteDance comes through their investments in private equity firms such as TCV, General Atlantic, Loyal Valley Capital, and GGV Capital, Equable noted.
  • And for direct investors, privately held assets can be difficult to sell.

Investors with a stake in ByteDance, in particular, "have an illiquid investment that is hard to spin into gold," the New York Times reported.

  • "A confluence of politics and economics means ByteDance is also unlikely to go public soon, which would enable its shares to trade."
  • "Their assets are stranded," Matt Turpin, former director for China at the National Security Council and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, told the Times. "They've made an investment in something that's going to be very difficult to make liquid."

Go deeper: TikTok's fate may be decided by the courts

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