Is Elon Musk getting cold feet? Why the entrepreneur may be trying to pull out of buying Twitter


PTI, May 20, 2022, 12:47 PM IST

Toronto: Has Elon Musk developed cold feet? Is he experiencing buyer’s remorse? Or is he trying to create drama for the markets, true to his public persona? Or could Musk be negotiating for a better price? Musk started buying Twitter stock in January. On March 14, he announced a 9.2 percent stake in the company. On April 5, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal announced that Musk would join Twitter’s board of directors, and called it a “welcome” move that would make Twitter “stronger in the long-term.” On April 10, Agrawal announced that Musk decided against joining the board.

On April 14, Musk announced an offer to pay USD 54.20 per share to buy the entire stock of the company. In response, on April 15, Twitter announced a Shareholder Rights Plan, a poison pill to deter Musk from acquiring the company.

On April 21, Musk presented a detailed plan to finance the USD 44 billion deal. Importantly, Musk would pay USD 21 billion of his own funds that would largely come from the sale of his Tesla stock holdings, and he would further borrow USD 13 billion against his Tesla holdings. Having seen a concrete financing plan, Twitter’s board accepted Musk’s offer on April 25.

Happily ever after? It should have been happily ever after for Twitter and Musk, but on May 17, Musk expressed concerns that 20 percent of Twitter accounts are fake, that his offer was based on Twitter’s subscriber count is accurate, and that he would not proceed with the deal unless there was proof that fewer than five percent of accounts are fake.

Musk’s threat made no sense because his offer was never about the number of subscribers or about the economics of the deal. After all, Twitter’s revenues, cash flows, dividends, or profits cannot justify a USD 44 billion valuation.

Besides, Musk never made his calculations based on price per subscriber multiplied by Twitter’s subscriber count. His move was primarily about what he wanted to make of Twitter. Or it may have been a vanity purchase: acquiring a modern-day newspaper like many rich people do (Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post and Rupert Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal).

If Musk really believed that many Twitter accounts are fake, why did he tweet so often? Musk made so many important announcements on Twitter, including his notorious tweet about taking Tesla private.

Ripple effects So, what happened since his earlier announcements? In my opinion, two factors changed Musk’s mind. First, a meltdown in technology stocks, particularly media stocks, meant that Twitter as a standalone company was no longer as valuable as it was in early January.

Second, Tesla’s shareholders were shaken by Musk’s moves. They became worried that Musk would spend his time changing Twitter, instead of paying undivided attention to championing electric vehicles.

They must also be worried about their highly indebted CEO, who now plans to sell or pledge Tesla’s shares to indulge his personal whims. Tesla’s stock fell from USD 1,091 on April 5, when Twitter announced Musk’s joining the board of directors, to USD 728 on May 17, just before Musk questioned Twitter’s subscriber count.

This price drop amounts to a USD 380 billion loss. Musk owns about 175 million shares in Tesla, which means that he personally suffered a USD 64 billion loss, far exceeding the USD 44 billion he planned to pay for Twitter.

Musk is a shrewd businessman and a smart negotiator — one doesn’t become the world’s richest person by just smoking weed. He now likely realizes that going after Twitter is not worth it and he has more to lose than gain from this deal.

Cutting losses In my opinion, he has now started laying the groundwork to pull out of the deal.

It is not easy to simply walk away from a signed deal. While the preliminary merger agreement provides for the possibility of a breakup, it can happen only under specified circumstances. In this situation, Musk must pay USD 1 billion as a termination fee.

In addition, Twitter may “specifically enforce the obligations under the merger agreement,” meaning that Twitter can enforce the agreement. Indeed, the Twitter board of directors recently indicated that it intends to pursue this option, including court action.

Where do we go from here? Twitter stock is trading at a 30 percent discount to Musk’s offer price, which means that investors seriously doubt the deal would go through. A protracted legal battle is on the cards. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission would become even more cautious in future deals with Musk.

Musk has already suffered financial losses, and his reputation has taken a hit. He mocked executives at Twitter with a wave of abusive tweets.

This is a huge fall from grace for Musk, who in 2021 was named TIME Magazine’s person of the year.

As far as Twitter is concerned, my advice would be to collect the USD 1 billion termination fee from Musk and move on. By pursuing a protracted legal battle, Twitter would lose employees and subscribers.

Let Musk focus on what he does best, that is, to innovate with new technologies. And let Twitter focus on what it does best, to create a digital town square for global news and public opinion.

(By Anup Srivastava, Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor, Business, University of Calgary. The Conversation)

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