International politics emerging as a factor in Sprint/T-Mobile merger

Sprint T-Mobile merger outline (Sprint)
SoftBank will hold a minority ownership of the combined Sprint and T-Mobile. (Sprint)

One of the federal agencies that must sign off on the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile is the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), and that agency has become a more important factor in recent international merger-and-acquisition action.

Indeed, under the Trump administration and led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the CFIUS played a critical role in ultimately blocking Broadcom’s attempted hostile takeover of Qualcomm over national security concerns.

As Bloomberg reports, such concerns may well factor into the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, largely due to the holdings of Sprint parent SoftBank. Specifically, the publication noted that SoftBank is the biggest shareholder in China’s Alibaba; that Taiwan’s Foxconn is an investor in the Vision Fund from SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son; and that China’s Huawei is a SoftBank equipment supplier.

To be clear, CFIUS M&A reviews are kept secret and it’s unclear how the agency might ultimately view the merger of Sprint with T-Mobile—both companies said they have no Chinese equipment in their networks, and the combined company will be majority owned by Germany’s Deutsche Telekom. Moreover, as Bloomberg noted, SoftBank obtained CFIUS approval last year of its acquisition of financial company Fortress Investment Group.

Sprint and T-Mobile also need to receive approval from the FCC and the Department of Justice.

But it’s clear that international politics are increasingly playing a role in the global technology industry. Although China offered to reduce the U.S. trade deficit by $200 billion earlier this week, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted on an amendment to uphold the U.S. Commerce Department's sanctions against China’s ZTE. "This amendment, which passed with the unanimous support of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, shows that, when the United States enacts sanctions, we stand behind them,” noted Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., in a statement.

Those sanctions forced ZTE to shutter its manufacturing operations—as The Wall Street Journal noted, U.S. companies supply 60% of the electronic components in ZTE's flagship smartphone. The company is the fourth-largest smartphone vendor in the United States.

Thus, the House's vote was a noteworthy action considering President Trump said Sunday that “President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”

“TMUS and S have met with both the FCC and the DoJ to discuss logic of the merger,” wrote the analysts at Wells Fargo today following a meeting with T-Mobile’s management. “While we continue to believe the regulatory process will be an uphill battle, this FCC differs from the prior one which pre-judged a S / TMUS merger before one was ever announced in 2014. In terms of next steps, a public interest statement (PIS) is expected to be filed sometime in June. After this statement, there will be a comment period for outside parties and then TMUS and S can respond to these comments.”

Article updated May 18 to clarify the ownership of a combined T-Mobile and Sprint.