ByteDance may miss US deadline for TikTok deal

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ByteDance Ltd. is increasingly likely to miss a Trump administration deadline for the sale of its TikTok U.S. operations after new Chinese regulations complicated negotiations with bidders Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp., according to people familiar with the matter.

ByteDance probably needs beyond the U.S. executive order ban on Sept. 20 to nail down an agreement with either party because of the regulatory review, said the people, asking not to be identified because the matter is private. In preliminary talks with Chinese officials, ByteDance has been told any proposal must be submitted for approval with detailed information about technical and financial issues, and the review will be substantial and take time, one of the people said. The officials haven’t been willing to give specific guidance on what kind of deal would work, the person said.

Microsoft and Oracle, which had submitted proposals before the Chinese regulations hit, both continue to be interested in buying the U.S. arm of the hit video app and have not been dissuaded by Beijing’s involvement, the people said. The bidders have asked ByteDance to get as much clarity as possible from Beijing on the new regulations, which prohibit the export of certain artificial intelligence technologies that TikTok uses, they said.

The parties are still racing to present a preliminary deal to the White House before this month’s deadline, though no agreement could be finalized before Beijing’s signoff. It’s also possible that ByteDance pulls out of a sale altogether if it determines it can’t satisfy both governments, the bidders and its own shareholders.

ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming has been caught in a clash between the world’s two preeminent powers. The serial entrepreneur has been reluctant to give up U.S. TikTok from the start because he sees the business as a viable long-term competitor to Facebook Inc. and Google. He came under pressure to cede control when the Trump administration said it would ban the app and his own venture investors pressed for a sale to salvage some value from the operation.

The Trump administration is divided over whether to give ByteDance more time or simply proceed with the ban. Donald Trump himself has called the app a national security risk, passing an executive order to ban the service this month and approving a separate decision by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, to force a sale by mid-November.

In negotiations earlier this year, ByteDance had attempted to work out a U.S. sale that would allow it to retain a substantial interest in the American operations, but the Trump administration has pushed back on that idea. Zhang would still like a small slice of the operation, the people said. But Microsoft and its partner in the deal, Walmart Inc., want full ownership of the business, one person said, while Oracle’s stance isn’t clear.

Analysts and bankers have estimated TikTok’s U.S. business is worth at least $20 billion, although the price would vary widely depending on what is included with the sale. The specific offers from Microsoft, which is teaming up with Walmart Inc., and Oracle, which has won support from venture backers such as Sequoia Capital, could not be determined.

Without any discussion or public announcement, China posted notification of new restrictions on the export of artificial intelligence technologies, including speech recognition and techniques for personalizing content. The aim of the rules is not necessarily to block a sale of the U.S. operations, but to ensure Beijing is actively involved and to slow down the process, one person said. The review may well push finalization of any agreement beyond the U.S. elections in November, the person said.

TikTok’s algorithms are not a big sticking point for the bidders, the second person said. Both Microsoft and Oracle have the technical chops to build their own algorithms and would get data to fine-tune them, the person said.

Zhang is still operating from a position of strength. Privately held ByteDance is already worth $140 billion, according to startup tracker CB Insights, and is said to have generated more than $3 billion of net profit on more than $17 billion of revenue in 2019.

Investment bankers have begun pitching Zhang’s team on going public in China or Hong Kong, even amid growing scrutiny in the U.S., and demand for initial public offerings from technology companies in the market is surging. Zhang stands to make billions no matter what happens with Trump and TikTok U.S.

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