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Can Elon Musk Make Twitter’s Numbers Work?

At the peak of the buyout boom in 2007, private equity firms including Kohlberg Kravis Roberts bought the Texas energy giant TXU for $45 billion. It was — and remains — the largest deal of its kind in American history.

Now, a single billionaire is inching toward that record. Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, said this past week that he would pay roughly $44 billion to take Twitter private. If the deal closes, it would become the country’s second-largest buyout on record.

Mr. Musk is departing from the traditional private equity playbook by putting up far more of his own money than is usual in such a deal, about three quarters of the price. But he’s also following more standard practice for what Wall Street calls a leveraged buyout, borrowing $13 billion that would be transferred onto Twitter’s books.

In other words, his plan for Twitter includes both more cash than the typical buyout and more debt than Twitter may be able to handle, given its patchy profitability.

The structure of the deal means Mr. Musk’s push for unfettered “free speech” on Twitter could find itself in conflict with the company’s basic need to pay off its new debt. If less restrictive moderation of content on the platform leads to more unfiltered exchanges and misinformation, Twitter’s main source of revenue — advertising — could suffer, since most advertisers are wary of associating their brands with polarizing content. And the company doesn’t yet have other meaningful sources of revenue, although it has experimented with subscriptions. If advertising revenue falls, Twitter, which employs more than 7,000 people, could struggle to make interest payments.

The acquisition is also a big financial risk for Mr. Musk, more than usual for private equity-style buyers who often limit their exposure by using mostly borrowed money instead of cash. Because of the way the acquisition is structured, a downturn in Twitter’s fortunes could stretch even Mr. Musk’s considerable financial resources — and challenge his reputation for business savvy.

And because Mr. Musk is both selling Tesla shares and putting them up as collateral for personal loans to raise cash, Tesla’s value would be linked to Twitter’s. Any trouble at Twitter could force Mr. Musk to draw on his stock in the electric carmaker he runs to plug potential holes. And any problem at Tesla that caused its stock to fall far enough could trigger clauses in Mr. Musk’s personal loans that would require him to add more collateral, limiting his ability to invest in Twitter.

Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. Mr. Musk has not explained whether he will be a benevolent steward of Twitter or a private equity-style overlord intent on cutting costs.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“I don’t care about the economics at all,” Mr. Musk said at a TED conference a day after making his buyout offer. The businessman, whose career is marked by upending industry norms, said that the deal is “not a way to make money.”

Mr. Musk has not explained what kind of owner he will be: a benevolent steward or a private equity-style overlord intent on cutting costs. Bloomberg News reported that Mr. Musk had pitched a business plan for Twitter that included layoffs.

From Opinion: Elon Musk’s Twitter

Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the billionaire’s $44 billion deal to buy Twitter.

  • Farhad Manjoo: Many worry that Twitter might get worse under Musk. But there’s also room for it to become much better.
  • Amelia Tait: If meaningless speech is what Musk hopes to cultivate, then perhaps his purchase of Twitter actually makes sense. 
  • Anand Giridharadas: Musk has embraced a flawed understanding of the free speech issue. That makes the deal particularly dangerous.
  • Ezra Klein: Twitter is built to gamify conversation, and Musk knows it. Could this push him to right-size the platform’s influence?
  • Pamela Paul: The impending cloud of “Elon Muskiness” hanging over Twitter is sure to set off a wave of farewells to the platform.

Perhaps Mr. Musk is approaching this acquisition the way other billionaires have approached their media purchases: not to turn a profit, but to secure an entity’s future. But the size of Mr. Musk’s bet, and the debt involved in financing it, puts the Twitter deal in a different league from, say, the $250 million purchase of The Washington Post in 2013 by Jeff Bezos, or Marc Benioff’s 2018 takeover of Time magazine for $190 million, both of which were fully paid for in cash.

Mr. Musk will ultimately be judged on whether he can make the numbers add up. Will his unusual financing plan secure Twitter’s future and prove critics wrong or seal its fate and squander a big chunk of his fortune?

Mr. Musk has offered $54.20 a share for the roughly 90 percent of Twitter he doesn’t already own. To pay for this, he has lined up $46.5 billion. Of that amount, $21 billion is in cash, some of which comes from selling Tesla shares. This past week, Mr. Musk sold more than $8 billion in Tesla stock, according to securities filings.

Another $12.5 billion is from what’s called a margin loan: money personally borrowed by Mr. Musk from a dozen banks with his Tesla shares pledged as collateral, carrying an interest rate of around 4 percent.

The remaining $13 billion is in the form of loans from a group of seven banks that will become Twitter’s responsibility to repay. The banks are charging relatively high interest rates on these loans, from around 5 percent to more than 10 percent in some cases.

Twitter’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, or EBITDA — a key measure of its capacity to service its debt — is roughly $1 billion a year. The typical leveraged buyout puts debt worth six times a company’s EBITDA on its balance sheet, according to LCD, a data service. The debt in Mr. Musk’s proposal is twice as high.

“It’s rare for a company that is not generating as much cash, or is generating only moderate amounts of cash, to have this amount of debt because you’ll starve the company of the ability to continue to hire engineers and seek out growth opportunities,” said Drew Pascarella, a senior lecturer of finance at Cornell University. But, he noted, “Elon would have the ability to fund the company with his own cash.”

Traditional private equity buyers use very little of their own cash. Instead, they borrow most of the money to pay for an acquisition. In the first quarter of this year, only 44 percent of the average value of all buyouts was paid in cash, according to LCD.

How Elon Musk Bought Twitter


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A blockbuster deal. Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, capped what seemed an improbable attempt by the famously mercurial billionaire to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion. Here’s how the deal unfolded:

The initial offer. Mr. Musk made an unsolicited bid worth more than $40 billion for the influential social network, saying that he wanted to make Twitter a private company and that he wanted people to be able to speak more freely on the service.

The response. Twitter’s board countered Mr. Musk’s offer with a defense mechanism known as a “poison pill.” This well-worn corporate tactic makes a company less palatable to a potential acquirer by making it more expensive for them to buy shares above a certain threshold.

Securing financing. Though his original offer had scant details and was received skeptically by Wall Street, Mr. Musk moved swiftly to secure commitments worth $46.5 billion to finance his bid, putting pressure on Twitter’s board to take his advances seriously.

Striking a deal. With the financing in place, Twitter’s board met with Mr. Musk to discuss his offer. The two sides soon reached a deal, with the social media company agreeing to sell itself for $54.20 a share.

What’s next? Shareholders will vote on the offer, which will also be reviewed by regulators. The deal is expected to take three to six months to close. In the meantime, scrutiny is likely to be intense and several questions remain about Mr. Musk’s plans for the company.

This structure is risky because a company can buckle under a heavy debt load. It is also potentially lucrative because the use of borrowed money — “leverage” in industry terms — can increase the financial returns if the buyers eventually take the company public again or sell it to a new buyer at a higher price.

The greed and glory of private equity players was set out in gripping detail in the 1989 book “Barbarians at the Gate,” about the $25 billion leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco by KKR and its subsequent fall. It cemented them in the popular imagination as among capitalism’s more rapacious actors, buying companies, piling debt on them, stripping costs, cutting benefits and laying off workers.

Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif. Mr. Musk is both selling Tesla shares and putting them up as collateral for personal loans to raise cash for the Twitter deal.Credit…Justin Kaneps for The New York Times

The takeover of TXU turned out to be a disaster, because a downturn in natural gas prices hammered its business as it groaned under the weight of its debts. Toys “R” Us went bankrupt in 2017, after the mountain of debt it took on when it went private in 2005 left it without the resources to compete against the rise of Amazon.

Mr. Musk first set out to raise debt financing for his bid by calling banks and other financial institutions starting the Saturday of Easter weekend. Bankers drew comfort, in part, from the fact that the deal would be backstopped by the world’s wealthiest man.

Still, the interest rates on the loans reflect the risk that they might not get paid back. The banks don’t hold on to the loans but sell them to other investors in the market, so if Twitter can’t pay its debts, Mr. Musk will either have to pay those investors, perhaps by selling more Tesla stock, or he could cede some part of his ownership of Twitter, diluting his stake.

Tesla had a market value of $902 billion as of Friday, but its shares have fallen by nearly 20 percent since Mr. Musk first revealed, in early April, that he had bought a big stake in Twitter. If Twitter’s finances go south, forcing Mr. Musk to sell more Tesla stock to pay Twitter’s debts or pledge more shares as collateral for his personal loans, it could put further pressure on Tesla’s stock price. Mr. Musk doesn’t take a salary from Tesla but is paid in stock that is released based on performance milestones that include the company’s share price.

Since Mr. Musk first disclosed his stake, the tech-heavy Nasdaq index has fallen more than 10 percent, making his offer appear even more generous. “It’s a high price and your shareholders will love it,” Mr. Musk said in a letter to Twitter’s board. Although the social media company’s stock had traded higher than Mr. Musk’s offer just six months ago, it slumped far below that price early this year and looked unlikely to return to those highs any time soon.

Mr. Musk has considered teaming up with investment firms in his bid to buy Twitter, which would reduce the amount of money he would personally have to invest. He could still partner with a firm or other investors like family offices to help raise cash, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.

Thoma Bravo, a technology-focused buyout firm, has expressed willingness to provide some financing, but nothing has been decided yet. Apollo, an alternative asset manager, also looked at a possible deal where it would extend a loan on preferred terms.

If the deal math becomes unpalatable for Mr. Musk, he has an out: a breakup fee of $1 billion. For a man with an estimated fortune well over $200 billion, that’s a small price to pay.

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