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PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 3:41pm

Baidu becomes latest Sina Weibo suitor

BIO

Doug Young has lived and worked in China for 15 years, much of that as a journalist for Reuters writing about Chinese companies. He currently lives in Shanghai where he teaches financial journalism at Fudan University. He writes daily on his blog, Young’s China Business Blog (www.youngchinabiz.com), commenting on the latest developments at Chinese companies listed in the US, China and Hong Kong. He is also author of a new book about the media in China, “The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.”
 

The list of companies looking to invest in Sina's (Nasdaq: SINA) Weibo microblogging platform continues to grow with word that online search leader Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU) has become the latest suitor to woo the popular social networking site. Word of Baidu's interest comes weeks after e-commerce leader Alibaba was also reportedly seeking a similar tie-up with Sina, though that deal was said to have reached an impasse after the companies failed to agree on a price. Frankly speaking, all 3 of these leading Internet companies seems to be a bit hyperactive at the moment with unrelated internal activities, prompting me to wonder if each potentially has too many distractions to craft a deal that will ultimately be good for anyone.

But before I pursue that side of the story, let's look at the latest news that has media reporting that Baidu has begun talks about purchasing an equity stake in Sina Weibo, China's most popular SNS with more than 350 million registered users. The reports, which simply cite "informed sources", say that Baidu and Alibaba would actually co-invest in Sina Weibo, in a deal that will be announced soon.

From my perspective, I seriously doubt that both Baidu and Alibaba would agree to this kind of co-investment arrangement, as these 2 companies historically haven't been very friendly and each would have very different ideas about how it would like to tie up with Sina Weibo. Alibaba would like to tap Weibo's huge user base as a new audience for its e-commerce services. Baidu would most likely also like to tap the big Weibo user base as a new platform for its popular advertising services.

I personally think the Alibaba tie-up sounds the most interesting, as many of Sina Weibo's users are also avid online shoppers and such a pairing could give Weibo a major boost as Sina tries to monetize the site and make it profitable. But from a broader perspective, I'm quite pessimistic that these companies can form a good alliance of any kind, as each has been very busy lately with numerous other unrelated matters.

Alibaba is in the midst of a major restructuring that saw the company earlier this month formally split itself into 25 business units, each with its own head, in a bid to rationalize its increasingly complex and wide range of business operations. What's more, Alibaba is also reportedly moving rapidly towards an IPO, with foreign media reporting the company has hired investment banks for such an offering. Alibaba later denied those reports, but the fact remains that its mega-IPO will be one of its major focuses for the next 2 years.

Meantime, Baidu has become the source of non-stop M&A rumours, after it raised US$1.5 billion through its first-ever bond offering late last year and said it was aiming to make some major acquisitions. Companies rumoured to be in Baidu's sights include video sharing site Xunlei, as well as software maker Kingsoft (3888.HK).

Lastly there's Sina itself, which is reportedly undergoing its own reorganisation to separate itself into mobile and desktop Internet business units, and is also reportedly undergoing some major management shuffles in its top ranks.

With all that major turbulence happening inside Alibaba, Baidu and Sina, one or more tie-ups between the 3 companies looks potentially difficult. Accordingly, I wouldn't be surprised if all the rumoured tie-up talks ultimately collapse and no deal is signed, which would clearly be the biggest disappointment and negative development for Sina Weibo. But even if a deal is signed, look for any such a tie-up to be poorly conceived due to competing interests and other distractions, limiting any chances of success.

Bottom line: Sina is unlikely to reach tie-up deals with either Alibaba or Baidu due to numerous distractions at all 3 companies, and even if a deal is reached it's likely to be a bad one.

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