Chinese internet search giant Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) is set to report second-quarter numbers after today’s bell and I’m not too optimistic on BIDU stock ahead of the print.
From a high-level perspective, it does appear that China’s economy is rebounding. Economic data coming out of China has meaningfully improved over the past several months. Meanwhile, Chinese tech heavyweights Alibaba (NYSE:BABA), JD.Com (NASDAQ:JD) and Tencent (OTCMKTS:TCEHY) all recently reported strong quarterly numbers.
But two of those three companies — JD and Tencent — said on their earnings calls that the ad market in China remains incredibly challenging. Tencent’s ad business actually slowed this quarter. Baidu gets most of its revenue from its ad business. As such, with the broad read from recent reports being that China’s ad business remains under tremendous pressure, the chance of Baidu reporting favorable numbers is not great.
That’s why I’m avoiding BIDU stock this earnings season. This stock is in a big secular decline because its numbers have consistently disappointed investors. Those numbers will likely continue to disappoint for the foreseeable future. Thus, while Baidu stock is pretty cheap, it’s still too risky to try and catch this falling knife.
The big implication here? Stay until away until there’s reason to come back.
Baidu’s Numbers Likely Won’t Be Good
The big reason to avoid BIDU stock ahead of the Q2 print is because it looks like the numbers won’t be that good.
Baidu has a lot of moving parts. But, at its core, this is the Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) of China. As such, Baidu is an advertising business. Specifically, this is a search advertising business. But, the whole digital ad market in China — and specifically the search ad market — is dramatically slowing, mostly because it’s oversaturated and because the entire economy is slowing.
In these slowing markets, Baidu is also losing share. This share erosion has two drivers. One, alternative ad formats are more compelling (like in-feed and social). Two, Baidu is staring at elevated competition in the search game.
Net net, Baidu is losing share in a slowing market. This has caused core revenue growth rates to slow from 50%-plus a few years ago, to under 20% last quarter. At the same time, Baidu is aggressively investing in alternative growth arenas to re-stimulate growth. This big spend is killing margins. Slowing growth plus falling margins equals tumbling profits. That’s exactly what’s happening. BIDU stock’s earnings per share is expected to be cut in half this year.
It does not appear that the Q2 print will have anything in it that will change the course of this downbeat narrative. JD said in its recent conference call that the China ad market remains under great pressure. Tencent had a similar tone in its conference call, citing a challenging digital ad macro environment as the reason why their digital ad business slowed from 25% growth in Q1 to 16% growth in Q2.
If JD and Tencent — two companies whose ad businesses have been relatively strong — struggled this past quarter on the ad front, then it’s pretty likely that Baidu — a company whose ad business has been in free-fall — struggled too. Continued bad numbers from Baidu won’t be enough to shake BIDU stock out of its multi-quarter downtrend.
Baidu Stock Is Cheap — But the Worst May Not Be Over
Zooming out, Baidu stock is unequivocally very cheap in the big picture.
Revenue growth trends are falling flat this year. But they will probably improve over the next several years as Baidu adapts its ad business to be more relevant in China’s double-digit growth ad market. Thus, Baidu should be able to start stabilizing market share over the next several years, which should lead to renewed and consistent double-digit revenue growth. Revenue growth consistency will allow the company to pull back on big growth-related investments, so margins should improve too.
Realistically, Baidu could grow revenues at a roughly 10% rate from 2019 into 2025, while adjusted operating margins could bounce back to 20% (where they were in 2018). Those assumptions make $15 in EPS seem doable for Baidu by 2025. Based on a market average 16-forward multiple, that implies a 2024 price target for BIDU stock of $240. Discounted back by 10% per year, that equates to a 2019 price target of roughly $150.
That’s more than 50% higher than where Baidu stock trades today. Thus, BIDU stock is undervalued.
But, it will remain undervalued until investors have reason to believe that Baidu will stabilize its share in China’s slowing digital ad market. That won’t happen this quarter. As such, for the foreseeable future, BIDU stock will likely remain undervalued.
Bottom Line on BIDU Stock
At some point, Baidu stock will stage a huge, rip-your-face-off rally. But not today. That rally won’t happen until Baidu proves that it can stabilize share in the slowing China digital ad market, and thereby, stabilize margins and profits. Baidu won’t prove that this quarter. Until it does, it’s best to stay away from this falling knife.
As of this writing, Luke Lango was long BABA, JD and GOOG.