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Microsoft, Walmart Offer Joint TikTok Bid, Vying With Oracle

(Bloomberg) -- Microsoft Corp. is teaming up with Walmart Inc. in a contest against Oracle Corp. to buy the U.S. assets of the popular video-sharing app TikTok from China’s ByteDance Ltd.

Oracle and Microsoft, with its new partner, both submitted bids in a deal that could come within the week, according to people familiar with the deliberations. Walmart would also own a stake in a newly spun off TikTok business, alongside Microsoft, the people said.

Competing offers have been made in what augurs the closing process of a deal, although it will take longer for final details to be worked out, one person said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.

Walmart confirmed in an email that it is in “partnership” with Microsoft in its pursuit of TikTok, a move to bolster the retailer’s third-party marketplace and nascent advertising arm. A Walmart-Microsoft bid would “meet both the expectations of U.S. TikTok users while satisfying the concerns of U.S. government regulators,” Walmart said. TikTok and Microsoft declined to comment, while Oracle didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In China and other countries, ByteDance’s apps offer e-commerce features along with video clips, which haven’t been available in the U.S. so far. Adding Walmart to the deal would enable the retail giant to play that role for the U.S. TikTok app, said a person familiar with the planning. Microsoft and Walmart are already collaborating on cloud applications, brought together by mutual rivalry with Amazon.com Inc., which is the biggest cloud-infrastructure software seller, followed by Microsoft.

The White House has been pushing for a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations due to concerns over its ties to China and implications for national security. Microsoft had emerged as the top contender to buy the company, announcing in a blog post earlier this month that it was in talks to acquire TikTok’s business in the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Microsoft’s discussions are now centered around TikTok’s U.S. business, narrowing the scope from its original plans to include the three other countries, according to two people familiar with the matter.

While ByteDance is asking about $30 billion for TikTok in the U.S., bidders have not been willing to offer that amount, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing people familiar with the negotiations.

Executive Order

U.S. President Donald Trump has issued an executive order with a mid-September deadline for TikTok to be sold to an American company or prohibit U.S. people and companies from doing business with the app. The announcement set off a flurry of interest from other companies. A later order required ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. assets within 90 days. It’s not clear whether other parties have entered the process or plan to bid.

The departure Wednesday of TikTok Chief Executive Kevin Mayer, after less than three months at the company, suggests a deal is imminent. Mayer had left a long career at Walt Disney Co. to join TikTok in June. Mayer’s appointment was held up as an example of how the company was distancing itself from its Chinese roots and was seen as a way to smooth relations with Washington.

“As we expect to reach a resolution very soon, it is with a heavy heart that I wanted to let you all know that I have decided to leave the company,” Mayer said in an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg News. “In recent weeks, as the political environment has sharply changed, I have done significant reflection on what the corporate structural changes will require, and what it means for the global role I signed up for.”

In a town hall with TikTok’s U.S. and European employees on Thursday, executives reassured employees that they will know more in the next couple of weeks, according to people familiar with the company who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Analysts and bankers have pegged the value of TikTok’s U.S. business anywhere from $20 billion to $50 billion, a wide range that reflects the complexity involved in separating TikTok’s American and global businesses, in determining a reliable number of users, and how revenue breaks out just for the markets at stake in the deal.

Public Scrutiny

With some 100 million monthly active users in the U.S. and a unique platform for making and sharing short videos, TikTok has drawn interest from an array of companies. Google parent Alphabet Inc. weighed pursuing a stake as part of a coalition that later came unraveled, people with knowledge of the matter told Bloomberg this month. Walmart, it turns out, was part of that group, alongside SoftBank Group Corp., some of the people said Thursday. SoftBank, led by Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, already owns a stake in ByteDance.

Representatives of Alphabet and SoftBank declined to comment. CNBC previously reported Walmart’s involvement with the Google grouping.

Aside from being crowded, the negotiations around TikTok have also become unusually public.

Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro, who has come out against a potential sale to Microsoft and advocated banning TikTok completely, has been at odds with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who wants the app sold, according to a person familiar with the deliberations within the White House. A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment. Navarro said there were “no tensions whatsoever” between himself and Mnuchin.

Mnuchin had come around to support a TikTok purchase by Oracle, this person said, before Walmart entered the picture. The person asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

It’s unclear whether the entry of Walmart into deal negotiations changes the administration’s views on which suitor is best positioned to satisfy the government’s national security concerns.

The move to ban TikTok or force a deal has drawn rebukes from Democrats. David Cicilline, the U.S. representative leading a high-profile antitrust investigation into Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, said in an interview this week that the government should embrace challengers to Facebook Inc., not hinder them. “We need more competition in this space,” he said. “What we don’t need is the president of the United States injecting himself into a transaction.”

Deal terms would also have to be palatable to the Chinese government, which has criticized the Trump administration for its actions against TikTok. Microsoft will want to avoid going so low on its proposed price that China feels ripped off, a person familiar with the matter said.

White Knight

Walmart’s partnering with Microsoft is the “final piece of the puzzle that ultimately cements” a successful acquisition of TikTok’s U.S. operations for $35 billion to $40 billion, Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives wrote in a note to investors. He called Microsoft the “only true white knight.”

Oracle has proposed a deal of $20 billion in cash and stock, according to a report in Hollywood publication The Wrap. Oracle’s offer would be made up of $10 billion in cash and $10 billion in Oracle stock plus 50% of annual TikTok profit would flow back to ByteDance for two years, one unidentified person told The Wrap.

The deal could be complicated by a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump administration from banning the app, a move that many of ByteDance’s investors sought to stop. Executives at General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital, two major backers of ByteDance, tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Chief Executive Officer Zhang Yiming from moving forward with the lawsuit, people familiar with the matter said.

They were concerned, in part, that challenging Trump would backfire and that the administration would respond by enacting additional roadblocks to completing a sale of the TikTok business, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private.

General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital declined to comment.

Bill Ford, CEO of General Atlantic, and Doug Leone, a managing partner at Sequoia Capital, have been acting as emissaries to the Trump administration on behalf of the Chinese company. Their main mission is to avert a ban by securing a deal, said the people. Even with Microsoft’s and Oracle’s bids submitted, they may need an extension beyond the deadline set by the president to work out details.

But ByteDance’s legal team was eager for a fight, and Zhang was happy to oblige, one of the people familiar with the discussions said.

Investor Concerns

The Trump administration hasn’t been particularly eager to embrace Leone’s overtures, either. Leone has sought to develop relationships with Mnuchin and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, people familiar with the discussions have said. One official in Washington has described Leone as overconfident and aloof to the problems Sequoia’s large presence in China presents to the administration.

However, the investors’ concerns were warranted, said two officials in Washington who asked not to be identified amid the litigation. The lawsuit is likely to have repercussions on the administration’s leniency toward any proposed deal, they said. Oracle has a decent shot of winning approval, two officials said, thanks to a public endorsement by Trump, the president’s relationship with its top executives and a collaboration between the company and the administration on 5G mobile infrastructure.

Navarro echoed that endorsement Wednesday during an appearance on Fox News.

“If you look at Microsoft versus Oracle, the one thing that separates the two companies with respect to national security is that Microsoft has a large footprint in China,” Navarro said. “Oracle on the other hand has a strong reputation of really putting a great firewall between its operations and China and that’s an important thing.”

(Updates with details on SoftBank’s involvement in possible deal in 13th paragraph)

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