腾讯

Tencent Stalks Alibaba — China’s Number Two Internet Company Quietly Takes Lethal Aim at its Number One

China's two most successful internet entrepreneurs share a last name but have very different strategies for mobile e-commerce. The future belongs to which?
China’s two most successful internet entrepreneurs share a last name but have very different strategies for mobile e-commerce. The future belongs to which Ma?

China’s second-largest private sector company Tencent is aiming a cannon at China’s largest private sector company and new darling of the US stock markets Alibaba. Will Tencent fire? There’s a vast amount of money at stake: these two companies, cumulatively, have market cap of $400 billion, Tencent’s $140bn and Alibaba’s $260bn.

Alibaba, as most now know,  currently has China’s e-commerce market in a stranglehold, processing orders worth over $300 billion a year, or about 80% of all Chinese online sales by China’s 300 million online shoppers. Meanwhile, Tencent is no less dominant in online chat and messaging, with over 400mn users for its mobile chat application WeChat, aka “Weixin” (微信).

The two businesses appear worlds apart. And yet, they are now on a collision course. The reason is social selling, that is, using a mobile phone chat app to sell stuff to one’s friends and contacts. It’s based on the simple, indisputable notion it’s more reliable and trustworthy to buy from people you know. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are all quite keen on social selling in the US. But, nowhere is as fertile a market as China, because nowhere else is the trust level from buying through unknown online merchants as low.

Alibaba has accumulated most of its riches from this low-trust model at Taobao’s huge online bazaar. It is a collection of thirty million small-time individual peddlers that Alibaba can’t directly control. The result, especially in a country with no real enforceable consumer protection laws or litigation, Taobao can be a haven for people selling stuff of dubious quality and authenticity.

Chinese know this, and don’t much care for it. It’s one reason both US-listed JD.com and Amazon China both seem to be gaining some ground on Alibaba. Their strategies are similar:  to be the “anti-Taobao”, selling brand-name stuff directly, using their own buying power and inventory, their own delivery people, and a no-questions-asked return policy. Their range of merchandise, however, is far more limited than Taobao’s. Tencent in 2014 bought a significant minority stake in JD.com.

Thanks to Weixin, Tencent now has the capability directly to become Alibaba’s most potent competitor and steal away billions of dollars in transactions. Will it?

As of now, Tencent seems oddly reluctant. Even as millions of Weixin users have started using the app to buy and sell goods directly with their friends, Tencent has countered by making it more difficult. Tencent introduced limits on the number of contacts each Weixin user can add, has made sending money tricky, and has more or less banned users to include price quotes in their mobile messages. For now, Weixin users appear undaunted, and are using various ruses to get around Tencent’s unexplained efforts to limit their profit-making activities. One common one: using the character for “rice” (米) instead of the symbol for the Chinese Renminbi (元).

This social selling through Weixin is called “Weishang” (微商) in Chinese, literally “commerce on Weixin”. It is without doubt the hottest thing in online selling now in China.

It’s hard to understand why Tencent wouldn’t passionately embrace social selling on Weixin. For now, Weixin looks to be an enormous money sink for Tencent. The Weixin app is free to download and use. What money it earns from it comes mainly from promoting pay-to-play online games. That’s small change compared to the tens of millions of dollars Tencent spends on maintaining the server infrastructure to facilitate and store the hundreds of millions of text, voice, photo and video messages sent daily on the network.

Chinese of all ages are glued to Weixin at all hours of the day. It can be hard for anyone outside China to quite fathom how deeply-woven into daily life Weixin has become in the four years since its launch. Peak Weixin usage can exceed 10mn messages per minute. With only slight exaggeration, Tencent’s founder and chairman Pony Ma explains Weixin has become like a  “vital organ” to Chinese.

It’s not just young kids. I took part in a meeting recently with a partner from KKR and the chairman of a large Chinese publicly-traded company At the end of the discussion, they eagerly swapped Weixin accounts to continue their confidential M&A dialogue.

My office is in the building next to Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen. I know quite a few of the senior executives. But, no one can or will articulate why Tencent, at least for now, is unwilling to use Weishang take on Alibaba. Some who claim to know say it’s because the Chinese government is holding them back, not wanting to have Tencent steal Alibaba’s spotlight so soon after its most-successful-in-history Chinese IPO in the US.

The two have sparred before. Tencent years ago launched its own copycat version of Taobao, now called Paipai. But it failed to put a dent in Alibaba’s franchise. Alibaba, in turn,  launched its own online message system to compete with Weixin. But, it’s sunk from sight as quickly as a heavy stone dropped in a deep pond.

Seen from a seller’s perspective, Weishang is fundamentally more attractive than selling on Taobao. Margins are higher, not only because Tencent charges no fees, but it’s getting much harder and more expensive to get noticed on Taobao. That’s good for Alibaba’s all-important ad revenues, but bad for merchants.

How does Weishang work? A woman, for example, buys twenty sweaters at a wholesale price, then takes a selfie wearing one. She sends this out to her 300 contacts on Weixin. Though the message includes neither the price nor much of a sales pitch, since both may be monitored by Tencent, she will often get back replies asking how to buy and how much. The sales are closed either by phone call, or through voice messaging over Weixin, with payment sent direct to the seller’s bank account.

Tencent knows Weixin is being used more and more like this, but because it’s driven the commerce somewhat underground, Tencent has no idea on the exact scale of Weishang. My guess is aggregate Weishang sales are already in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

Alibaba has clearly noticed. But, social selling isn’t something its Taobao e-commerce marketplace can do. Its mobile e-commerce strategy amounts to making it easy to scroll through Taobao items on a small screen. Social selling in China is and will remain Tencent’s natural monopoly.

For anyone wondering, Alibaba’s IPO prospectus from a few months ago did not mention Weishang and Weixin, and Tencent gets a single nod as one of many possible competitors. Weishang really began to gain traction only during the second half of 2014, after the main draft of the Alibaba prospectus was completed.

To those outside China especially on Wall Street, Alibaba seems to be on the top of the world, as well as the top of its game. In the last four months, it’s collected $25 billion from the IPO and another $8 billion in a bond offering. Its share price price is up 50% since the IPO. For a lot of us living here in China, the boundless enthusiasm in the US for “Ali” (as the company is universally known here) can sometimes seem a bit unhinged.

When will Tencent make its move? Why is it now so reticent to promote Weishang, or discuss its plans with the investment community? Is it busy next door to me readying a dedicated secure payment system and warranty program for Weishang purchases?

I don’t have the answer, but this being China, I do know where to look for guidance. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, written 2,500 years ago, remains the country’s main strategic handbook, used as often in business as in combat. The pertinent passage, in Chinese, goes “微乎微乎,至于无形;神乎神乎,至于无声;故能为敌之司命.” In English, you can translate it as “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. “

In other words, don’t let your competitor see or hear you coming until its already too late.

Out of Focus: China’s First Big LBO Deal is a Headscratcher

The first rule of capitalism is the more buyers you attract, the higher the price you get. So, having just one potential buyer is generally a lousy idea when your goal is to make as much money as possible.

What then to make of the recently-announced plan by an all-star team of some of China’s largest PE firms, including CDH, Fountainvest, CITIC Capital, as well global giant Carlyle,  to participate in a $3.5 billion proposed leveraged buyout deal to take private the NASDAQ-listed Chinese advertising company Focus Media. Any profit from this “take private” deal, as far as I can tell,  hinges on later flipping Focus Media to a larger company. That’s because the chances seem slight a privatized Focus Media will be later approved for domestic Chinese IPO. But, what if Focus turns out to be flip-proof?

With so much money — as so many big name PE firms’ reputations —  on the line, you’d think there would a clear, persuasive investment case for this Focus Media deal. As far as I can tell, there isn’t. I have the highest respect for the PE firms involved in this deal, for their financial and investing acumen. They are the smartest and most experienced group of PE professionals ever assembled to do a single Chinese deal. And yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what they are thinking with this deal and why they all want a piece of this action.

If the goal is to try to arbitrage valuation differences between the US and Chinese stock markets, this deal isn’t likely to pan out. It’s not only that Focus Media will have a tough time convincing China’s securities regulator, the CSRC, to allow it to relist in China. Focus Media is now trading on the NASDAQ at a trailing p/e multiple of 18. That is on the high side for companies quoted in China.

Next problem, of course, is the impact on the P&L from all the borrowing needed to complete the deal. There’s been no clear statement yet about how much equity the PE firms will commit, and how much they intend to borrow. To complete the buyout, the investor group, including the PE firms along will need to buy about 65% of the Focus equity. The other 35% is owned by Focus Media’s chairman and China’s large private conglomerate Fosun Group. They both back the LBO deal.

So, the total check size to buy out all other public shareholders will be around $2.4 billion, assuming they investor group doesn’t need to up its offer. If half is borrowed money, the interest expense would swallow up around 50% Focus Media’s likely 2012 net income. In other words, the LBO itself is going to take a huge chunk out of Focus Media’s net income.  In other words, the PE group is actually paying about twice the current p/e to take Focus Media private, since its purchase mechanism will likely halve profits.

A typical LBO in the US relies on borrowed money to finance more than half the total acquisition cost. The more Focus Media borrows, the bigger the hit to its net income. Now, sure, the investors can argue Focus Media should later be valued not on net income, but on EBITDA. That’s the way LBO deals tend to get valued in the US. EBITDA, though,  is still something of an unknown classifier in China. There isn’t even a proper, simple Chinese translation for it. Separately, Focus Media is already carrying quite a bit of debt, equal to about 60% of revenues. Adding another big chunk to finance the buyout, at the very least,  will create a very wobbly balance sheet. At worst, it will put real pressure on Focus Media’s operating business to generate lots of additional cash to stay current on all that borrowing.

I have no particular insight into Focus Media’s business model, other than to note that the company is doing pretty well while already facing intensified competition. Focus Media doesn’t meet the usual criteria for a successful LBO deal, since it isn’t a business that seems to need any major restructuring, refocusing or realignment of interests between owners and management.

Focus Media gets much of its revenue and profit from installing and selling ads that appear on LCD flatscreens it hangs in places like elevators and retail stores. It’s a business tailor-made for Chinese conditions. You won’t find an advertising company quite like it in the US or Europe. In a crowded country, in crowded urban shops, housing blocks and office buildings, you can get an ad in front of a goodly number of people in China while they are riding up in a jammed elevator or waiting at a checkout counter.

The overall fundamentals with Focus Media’s business are sound. The advertising industry in China is growing. But, it’s hard to see anything on the horizon that will lift its current decent operating performance to another level. Without that, it gets much harder to justify this deal.

This is, it should be noted, the first big LBO ever attempted by a Chinese company. It could be that the PE firms involved want to get some knowledge and experience in this realm, assuming that there could be more Chinese LBOs coming down the pike. Maybe. But, it looks like it could be pretty expensive tuition.

Assuming they can pull off the “delist” part of the deal, the PE firms will need to find a way to exit from this investment sometime in the next three to five years. Focus Media’s chairman has been vocal in complaining about the low valuation US investors are giving his company. In other words, he believes the company’s shares can be sold to someone else, at some future date, at a far higher price. (He personally owns 17% of the equity.)

Who exactly, though, is this “someone else”? Relisting Focus Media in China is a real long shot, and anyway, the current multiples, on a trailing basis, are comparable with NASDAQ’s . This is before calculating the hit Focus Media’s earnings will take from leveraging up the company with lots of new debt. How about the Hong Kong Stock Exchange? Focus Media would likely be given a warm welcome to relist there. One problem: with Hong Kong p/e multiples limping along at some of the lowest levels in the world, the relisted Focus Media’s market value would almost certainly be lower than the current price in the US. Throw in, of course, millions of dollars in legal fees on both sides of the delist-relist, and this Hong Kong IPO plan looks like a very elaborate way to park then lose money.

That leaves M&A as the only viable option for the PE investor group to make some money. I’m guessing this is what they have on their minds, to flip Focus Media to a larger Chinese acquirer.  They may have already spoken to potential acquirers, maybe even talked price. The two most obvious acquirers, Tencent Holdings and Baidu, both may be interested. Baidu has done some M&A lately, including the purchase, at what looks to many to be a ridiculously high price, of a majority of Chinese online travel site Qunar.  So far so good.

The risk is that neither of these two giants will agree to pay a big price down the line for a company that could buy now for much less. The same logic applies to any other Chinese acquirer, though they are few and far between. I’d be surprised if Tencent or Baidu haven’t already run the numbers, maybe at Focus Media’s invitation. But, they didn’t make a move. Not up to now.

Could it be they don’t want to do the buyout directly, out of fear it could go wrong or hurt their PR? Maybe. But, I very much doubt they will be very eager to play the final owner in a very public “greater fool” deal.

I’m fully expecting to be proven wrong eventually by this powerhouse group of PEs, and that they will end up dividing a huge profit pile from this Focus Media LBO. If so, the last laugh is on me. But,  as of now, the Focus deal’s investment logic seems cockeyed.