Gm Lyft

GM president Dan Ammann (center) with Lyft co-founders Logan Green (left) and John Zimmer. GM owns 9% of Lyft. Did it try to buy more? Image source: General Motors. 

Is ride-hailing start-up Lyft seeking a buyer?

Reports that Lyft has retained an investment bank to talk to potential buyers -- and that those potential buyers include Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), General Motors (NYSE:GM), Lyft archrival Uber, and other big names -- have fueled speculation that the company is on the block.

Business Insider reported yesterday that Lyft's president, John Zimmer, said that the company isn't for sale. He said that those reports have mischaracterized the situation. But it's a strange story that continues to invite speculation as to what, if anything, is happening here.

What we know about Lyft's maybe-suitors

Here's what we know: On Aug. 12, influential tech news site The Information reported (subscription required) that General Motors had expressed interest in acquiring Lyft, going as far as to name a price -- but Lyft had declined. 

That was a somewhat surprising report, but only somewhat. GM invested $500 million in Lyft in January in return for a 9% stake and a seat on Lyft's board. GM and Lyft are working together (successfully, it's said) on a number of initiatives, including an upcoming pilot program involving GM's self-driving cars. It seemed unlikely that GM would want to spend big to buy the whole company, but it didn't seem out of the question.

More details have since emerged. It appears that, in the wake of GM's expression of interest, Lyft hired a boutique investment bank known for helping tech firms find buyers. 

The New York Times reported on Aug. 19 that Lyft (or the bank representing it) had held talks with companies including GM, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Self-Driving Cars unit, Amazon, Uber, and Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing.

None of those companies was willing to make an offer that Lyft would accept. Recode reported on Aug. 19 that Lyft was seeking as much as $9 billion. That was far too rich for at least one buyer: Bloomberg reported that Uber executives told investors that it wouldn't pay more than $2 billion for Lyft. 

GM's investment in January had assumed a $5.5 billion valuation. Was that peak Lyft? That's the impression that Zimmer is trying hard to push back against now. 

Who is behind all of these reports?

The articles raise a number of questions, starting with these: What really happened, and who was behind all of these leaks?

Zimmer told Business Insider that he thinks Uber was pushing the story. Why would Uber do that? Perhaps to scare away potential Lyft investors by suggesting that the company was in trouble. (Lyft has about $1.4 billion in cash on hand. It's not close to running out.) 

Uber may also finally be preparing for an IPO. That IPO might go better if Uber had a clearly dominant position in the U.S. -- or put another way, if it could get Lyft out the way (or at least marginalize it) before going public.

It's also possible that General Motors was irked by the initial report from The Information suggesting that GM had been eager to acquire Lyft only to fall short. The New York Times reported that GM "never made a written offer to buy Lyft." While clearly Lyft and GM had discussions about an acquisition, it now seems likely that those discussions never reached a serious stage. 

What happens next for Lyft?

Lyft will need to raise more money at some point, somehow. 

Uber, with about $9 billion in cash on hand, has a huge financial advantage over Lyft. And Uber's recent move to unload its money-torching China operation has freed it to concentrate its big financial advantage on fighting Lyft in the U.S. 

Lyft will have to be able to spend big in order to hold its position in the market. That means it needs to raise more money -- or find a deep-pocketed owner. Stay tuned. 

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. John Rosevear owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon.com, and Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2018 $90 calls on Apple and short January 2018 $95 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.