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Baidu Investors Fell Out of Love Years Ago

Tim Culpan and Nisha Gopalan

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Five years ago, Baidu Inc. founder and Chairman Robin Li sat down with Bloomberg News to explain how foreign investors were getting it wrong.

Listed on the Nasdaq a decade earlier, shares of the Chinese search-engine provider had taken a beating over the prior year, and Li’s chief complaint was that Americans just didn’t appreciate the coming changes in its business. The trend in China was toward services like delivery and ride-hailing, as well as bookings for restaurants, beauty salons and doctors. This online-to-offline economy would eclipse search revenue, he predicted.

Now, it seems that Li has lost patience. Baidu is looking into the possibility of delisting its shares from the Nasdaq and moving to an exchange closer to home, Reuters reported Friday, citing three people familiar with the matter. Baidu thinks it’s undervalued, according to the report.

The backdrop to these discussions is rising hostility to U.S. investments in Chinese assets amid worsening relations between the two countries. The U.S. Senate passed a bill last week that would force companies to delist unless they can prove they’re not under the control of a foreign government.

That sounds like a good excuse for Baidu to look for the exit. The reality is that investors lost patience with its management years ago. It was inevitable that the company would seek one day to list elsewhere, as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. has already done. Baidu’s U.S.-traded stock fell 15% between that September 2015 interview and the end of last year, before the pandemic hit. Over the same period, Alibaba climbed 248%.

Li’s problem is that his company failed to grasp the transformation he was talking up half a decade ago. While Alibaba and Tencent Holdings Ltd. have successfully moved into new areas like payments and physical retail, and upstarts like Meituan Dianping and Pinduoduo Inc. now dominate delivery and social-commerce, Baidu has barely changed.

Its core business still centers on advertising and accounts for 73% of revenue, which climbed just 2% last year. Investments into new realms like artificial intelligence and autonomous driving have yet to bear fruit. Its other major sales contributor, iQiyi Inc., a video-streaming platform that listed separately on Nasdaq in March 2018, continues to lose money.

Around the time that Li complained foreign investors weren’t getting it, some of his contemporaries decided to move home where they felt Chinese investors had a better understanding and would reward them with higher valuations. Internet security company Qihoo 360 Technology Co. was taken private by a consortium that included Citic Group for $9.3 billion in December 2015. It relisted in Shanghai in 2018 via the purchase of elevator maker SJEC Corp., and now trades under the name 360 Security Technology Inc. Chinese investors have soured on 360 Security, pushing the company’s market value down by more than a third since February. 

There’s a warning for Li. Investors in China won’t assign a higher valuation to a returning company unless it has a convincing growth story to tell. Baidu was a pioneer when it listed on Nasdaq in 2005, paving the way for dozens of Chinese internet stocks to follow. Touted as the Google of China, it symbolized the potential of the sector for American investors. Those days are long gone: Baidu has been eclipsed as China’s technology darling by fasting-growing companies such as Alibaba and Tencent.

The problem for Li isn’t that investors don’t understand his business. It may be that they understand it too well.

 

 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Nisha Gopalan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and banking. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones as an editor and a reporter.

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