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China’s Meituan Soars After Signaling Comeback From Covid-19

Zheping Huang

(Bloomberg) -- Meituan Dianping surged as much as 10% after the internet services giant said its food delivery business began to recover in March, when shuttered restaurants re-opened and much of China returned to work.

Meituan, backed by Tencent Holdings Ltd., told analysts on a conference call Monday that demand for food delivery picked up this month, putting it on track for a longer-term recovery after Covid-19 froze a swath of the world’s second largest economy. But it also projected an operating loss and revenue decline this quarter, and warned that the full extent of fallout from the pandemic -- particularly on its travel and ride-sharing businesses -- remained uncertain in 2020. Its stock was up roughly 7% in early trade after Daiwa lifted its price target and said Meituan should return to growth in the second half.

Meituan joined sector bellwethers from Sony Corp. to Apple Inc. and Twitter Inc. in emphasizing the difficulty of parsing an unprecedented event and its impact on their business. The Chinese company is one of the most exposed of the country’s major tech corporations to the spread of Covid-19. The company’s outlook is further clouded by China’s worsening economy, which may contract this quarter for the first time since 1989, denting consumer spending.

“Although we have seen gradual recovery from March especially for food delivery business, the active merchants of our in-store service category remain at a very low level as of late March,” Chief Financial Officer Chen Shaohui said on the call. “We expect consumers will need more time to build their consumption confidence for local consumption especially those discretionary consumption scenarios in our in-store business.”

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says

Despite mild improvements in Meituan’s local services in late March as the virus outbreak subsided in China, the timing of a full operational recovery remains highly uncertain. Its food-delivery business may stay slow, with many restaurants still closed and consumers wary of interactions with delivery personnel. Its in-store, hotel and travel businesses may take even longer to recover, as users stayed home. Strong 42% sales gains and 117% gross-profit expansion in 4Q suggest Meituan’s longer-term growth drivers are intact. The company plans to maintain strategic investments in B2B food distribution and restaurant management systems.

- Vey-Sern Ling and Tiffany Tam, analysts

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Read more: Chinese Abandon Food Delivery Fearing Drivers Will Spread Virus

The coronavirus dealt an as-yet unquantifiable blow to a company that, before the outbreak erupted in January, was on track to take its place among the country’s most influential technology corporations. While Meituan’s stock has taken a pounding like every other Chinese internet firm, a 2019 rally secured its position as China’s largest publicly traded internet firm after Alibaba and Tencent.

“Market expectations were very low as investors have seen the damage COVID-19 has inflicted on offline service providers,” Nomura analyst Shi Jialong wrote.

Meituan on Monday reported a better-than-expected 42% jump in revenue to 28.2 billion yuan ($4 billion) in the three months ended December, compared with the 26.5 billion-yuan average of analysts’ estimates. It booked a profit for the quarter of almost 1.5 billion yuan, versus expectations for a loss.

The company still harbors ambitions well beyond its current core business. Meituan had been diversifying from takeout, investing in other online services including travel, competing directly against Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. But others are elbowing their way into Meituan’s turf. Ride-hailing giant Didi recently launched a delivery service similar to Uber Eats across major Chinese cities, while Alibaba-backed Alipay is also morphing into an all-in-one online services platform that allows everything from restaurant booking to car-hailing.

Executives on Monday stressed the company will keep investing in new initiatives from bike-sharing to online groceries, an e-commerce segment that accelerated sharply after the pandemic forced millions to work -- and cook -- from home. Meituan said it’s setting up the logistics to support that business while exploring ways to roll out the business to more Chinese cities.

“The pandemic has already caused severe disruptions to the daily operations of our merchants, including restaurants, local services merchants and hotels, which in turn resulted in downward pressure on our own operations for the first quarter of 2020,” Meituan said in its filing. “Due to the high uncertainty of the evolving situation, we are unable to fully ascertain the expected impact on full year 2020 at this stage.”

Read more: Virus Outbreak Exposes $46 Billion Rift in China’s Tech Industry

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