(Bloomberg) -- For two decades, Baidu Inc. has largely been viewed as an online marketing company selling ads within its web search results. Now, the internet company is ready to make the case that it has more to offer.Shares of China’s largest search engine firm have surged nearly threefold since their mid-March lows, when the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic forced marketers and brands to tighten their budgets. Since then, advertising has staged a recovery, while Baidu’s years of investments in artificial intelligence is starting to bear fruit as it monetizes the technology in electric vehicles and smart speakers. The rally has emboldened the 21-year-old company to tap capital markets with a slew of financing plans, including a potential second listing in Hong Kong.Executives unfurling earnings after trading hours on Wednesday will seek to reassure investors that the $80 billion gain in its market value has legs. Revenue for the December quarter is projected to surge 4.1%, the fastest pace in 2020, according to analysts’ estimates.“AI was popular a couple of years ago, however it has been quiet as the application in real world is not easy,” said Tian X Hou, founder of research firm TH Capital, in a note. “Once these applications come out one by one and are monetized in a bigger scale, Baidu is likely to enjoy multiple expansion.”
Once one of China’s big three tech leaders alongside Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., Baidu is playing catch up as the country’s internet users increasingly shift from desktop to mobile. It began to sink billions of dollars into areas from language learning to voice interaction and autonomous driving, betting on smart devices and vehicles of the future. But that endeavor ran into trouble in the initial stages, capped by the departures of several pivotal executives including a well-regarded former chief scientist.Now, aided by years of steady investment in R&D and Beijing’s focus on developing smart nationwide infrastructure, commercialization cases are finally coming to the fore: In January, the company announced it’s teaming up with Zhejiang Geely Holding Group to produce smart electric vehicles. The tie-up is intended to help Baidu deploy its Apollo self-driving tech in more vehicles, a person familiar with the matter has said.Baidu’s Apollo and EV business is valued at $32 billion by Daiwa Capital Markets analysts including John Choi, who benchmarked it to the value of Chinese EV peers while forecasting $8.3 billion revenue for the segment in 2023. “Baidu will work to unlock values of its technologies in 2021,” they wrote in January.With its AI applications still in the early stages and technology investments likely to keep compressing margins, Baidu has sought external capital to bankroll its expansion. Last year, the company’s smart speaker division received its first independent financing round at a $2.9 billion value. It has recently reached out to investors including IDG Capital and GGV Capital to raise funds for its AI chips unit ahead of a potential spinoff of the business, according to people with knowledge of the matter.At the same time, Baidu is seeking to raise another $3 billion in its biggest syndicated loan deal, Bloomberg News reported last week, citing people with knowledge of the plan. Those funding efforts precede a Hong Kong share sale that’s said to be on track to raise $3.5 billion. The company has selected CLSA Ltd. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for the listing which could take place as soon as the first half of this year, people familiar said in January.The most imminent threat, however, comes from upstarts like TikTok-owner ByteDance Ltd. Newer social platforms like Douyin, the Chinese twin of TikTok, have increasingly gained user traffic at the expense of Baidu offerings including its Netflix-style affiliate iQiyi Inc. Baidu -- which makes about 70% of revenue from online marketing -- controlled 8% of Chinese users’ time spent on apps in December, half of ByteDance’s 16%, according to researcher QuestMobile.
To compete, its flagship search app is morphing into a social media platform hosting an array of content from news articles to live-streams and short videos. In November, the Beijing-based company agreed to buy Joyy Inc.’s YY streaming service for $3.6 billion in a deal that is already been substantially completed.
“Guidance on the ad outlook is likely to be positive as the worst already appears to be behind,” Citi analyst Alicia Yap wrote in a report. “Potential for more news flow related to EV and autonomous driving initiatives in the coming months is likely to support continued positive momentum in the share price heading into an Hong Kong listing.”
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