Watch CBS News

TikTok could draw a range of bidders, but deal would face major hurdles

TikTok’s future in U.S. remains unclear
Experts weigh in on possible outcomes for users if Senate bans TikTok in U.S. 04:34

If TikTok winds up on the auction block — and that's a big if — former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is interested. 

Mnuchin, who served under former President Donald Trump, told CNBC's Squawk Box on Thursday that he plans to put assemble an investment group to buy TikTok. "This should be owned by U.S. businesses. There's no way that the Chinese would ever let a U.S. company own something like this in China," Mnuchin said. 

Mnuchin's remarks came after the House voted 352-65 to a bill that would ban the popular social media app in the U.S. if its China-based owner, ByteDance, declines to sell its stake. He offered no details about who might join the investor group or about TikTok's possible valuation. 

After the House's unusual display of bipartisanship, the measure is now headed to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain fate. President Joe Biden has already said he will sign the measure into law if it reaches his desk.

Should the measure be enacted, Bytedance would have six months to fully divest its U.S. TikTok operations to another non-Chinese entity. Barring such a transaction, it would be illegal for app store operators like Apple and Google to make it available.

Who might want to buy TikTok?

While in the White House, former President Donald Trump in 2020 ordered TikTok be sold to to an American company, with Walmart and Oracle interested in acquiring it. But that deal was ultimately shelved as the Biden administration continued the prior administration's focus on the potential national security risks posed by Chinese technology companies.

After initially leading the charge to ban TikTok, Trump now opposes the bill to force a sale, with the presidential candidate arguing the measure would empower Facebook, which he has bashed for its alleged role in his 2020 election loss. 

Should TikTok be made available for sale, a number of financial and technology companies would likely be interested despite what's certain to be an "eye-popping" price tag, WedBush Securities analysts said in a report. 

"Private equity with a potential consortium will look at TikTok, and a number of tech stalwarts will also likely focus on TikTok including Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and/or joint bids from a handful of Big Tech players depending on the structure and price tag," they said.  

Is TikTok a threat to national security? 09:19

Other possible bidders include former Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, who has floated the idea to potential partners, according to the Wall Street Journal, which pegged any price tag be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. 

ByteDance was valued at $220 billion at its last funding round in 2023, according to CNBC, citing Pitchbook data. TikTok had global revenue last year of $36.9 billion, according to an October estimate by eMarketer. The research firm forecast those revenues to reach  $46.6 billion and $56 billion in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

Beyond the significant price tag for TikTok and whatever the political impetus for a deal, the regulatory climate in Washington, D.C., could hinder a sale to a U.S. buyer, analysts said. Amazon, Google and Meta all currently face lawsuits by U.S. Justice Department for antitrust violations, making it less likely that any of the technology giants would purchase an app with 170 million American users. Apple and Microsoft would likely face similar hurdles. 

ByteDance could also seek to spin TikTok off in an initial public offering. But disentangling the platform's algorithms — the beating heart for any social media firm — from its corporate parent would be complex and involve intense scrutiny from U.S. regulators.

Long march to a deal

Meanwhile, the political road for TikTok remains uncertain despite the political heat. Wedbush puts the odds of TikTok getting banned in the U.S. at only 25%.

A Senate bill requiring ByteDance to cut ties with TikTok would require 60 votes to pass — a tall order even given a measure of bipartisan support for such legislation. 

It would also require Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to bring the bill to a vote. If the New York Democrat thinks a vote to ban TikTok could harm the prospects for his party in tight races, Schumer could decide against bringing the bill for a vote, Wall Street analysts said.

Even assuming a ban becomes law, legal challenges from ByteDance would also likely delay the process.

"We have no way to handicap what happens if this case where to ultimately reach the Supreme Court, with ByteDance/TikTok arguing free speech, while the U.S. government argues national security concerns," said LightShed Ventures analyst Richard Greenfield. 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a TikTok deal would be getting the Chinese government to cooperate, given that Beijing has said it would staunchly opposed a forced sale. 

"China and Bytedance will never allow the source code to be sold to a U.S. tech company in our view, which makes this all a spiderweb issue for any potential strategic buyer," Wedbush said in its report.

"There is still a long and uncertain road ahead to actually forcing ByteDance to divest TikTok or be banned from the U.S. Importantly, we do not expect ByteDance to accept a TikTok divesture," Greenfield said. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.