TikTok may finally comeback to India: Softbank considers bidding; searches for local partners

By: |
September 4, 2020 9:42 AM

SoftBank Group Corp. is exploring assembling a group of bidders for TikTok’s India assets and has been actively looking for local partners.

tiktok saleOver the past month, the Japanese conglomerate, which owns a stake in TikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance Ltd., has held talks with the heads of India’s Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel.

SoftBank Group Corp. is exploring assembling a group of bidders for TikTok’s India assets and has been actively looking for local partners, according to people familiar with the matter. Over the past month, the Japanese conglomerate, which owns a stake in TikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance Ltd., has held talks with the heads of India’s Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. and Bharti Airtel Ltd., the people said, asking not to be identified because the details are private. While discussions have fizzled since, SoftBank is still exploring options, according to the people.

Representatives for SoftBank, ByteDance, Reliance and Bharti Airtel declined to comment.

TikTok is considering selling its operations in several countries after local governments shut out the app, citing fears that sensitive user data was passing into the hands of the Chinese state. India, a long-time regional rival, has taken a particularly tough stance, banning 59 of China’s largest internet services in July, including TikTok. The move came less than a month after 20 Indian soldiers died in border clashes amid heightening nationalism stoked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

SoftBank would almost certainly need a local partner to cut a deal that would win government approval.  Before the ban, India was one of TikTok’s largest markets, with more than 200 million users.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok and then ordered ByteDance to sell its assets in the country because of national security concerns.

Despite holding only a minor stake in ByteDance, SoftBank has played a particularly active role in negotiations. In the U.S.,  the Japanese company brought in Walmart Inc. as the main investor in a group of bidders that also included Google parent Alphabet Inc. But the consortium fell apart after the Trump administration insisted a U.S. tech company lead the investments, one of the people said. Google said it is no longer interested, while Walmart joined a bid led by Microsoft Corp. It’s unclear which group SoftBank is currently working with in the country.

Centricus Asset Management Ltd., which is also a frequent adviser to SoftBank, teamed up with Triller Inc. in a bid for TikTok’s operations in the U.S. and several other countries for $20 billion, according to a person familiar with the matter.

SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son has a long history of investing in India and a deep network of local business connections. Local startups backed by Son include e-commerce provider Snapdeal.com, ride-hailing service Ola Cabs and hotel-booking app Oyo Rooms. In December, SoftBank poured $275 million into eye-care provider Lenskart, minting India’s latest unicorn.  The company is also part of a solar power joint venture with Bharti Enterprises Pvt. and Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Co. Son helped pave the way for Walmart’s entry into the country by selling its stake in Flipkart Online Services Pvt Ltd. in 2018.

Son has been on a $42 billion asset selling spree, offloading stakes in Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., T-Mobile US Inc. and SoftBank’s domestic telecom unit, SoftBank Corp. Son is also looking to sell or list Arm Ltd., the chip design firm that he bought four years ago for $32 billion.

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