Struggling Chinese tech debuts don't bode well for unicorn IPOs

As a new batch of China unicorns line up to list, the performance of tech start-ups that went public in past year doesn’t augur well, with two-thirds below their offer price

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 10:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 10:44am

The struggles of Chinese tech startups that went public in the past year is a bad omen for the slew of unicorns looking at initial public offerings.

Smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp and ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing are among at least 23 Chinese tech startups eyeing IPOs in Asia and the US, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. But the performance of those that listed in the past year doesn’t augur well for them.

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Two-thirds of the 21 tech IPOs in the past year are below their issue price, with shares down an average of about 20 per cent through Friday. Leading the wipe out are online financing platforms Qudian Inc and PPDai Group Inc, which plummeted 55 per cent and 48 per cent respectively, while search engine Sogou Inc has tanked 27 per cent.

“These Chinese companies are getting to a point where they need to get funding from the public market and many will try to stretch valuations as high as possible.”
Julia Pan, UOB Kay Hian

The extraordinary surge in private valuations that has seen China sprout 164 companies worth at least US$1 billion now presents a challenge in public markets. The liquidity that’s expected to be drawn for the IPOs is so substantial that investors are concerned about a cash crunch in the city of Hong Kong. Compounding the problem is a more sober assessment of growth, with titans Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd well off earlier record highs.

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“These Chinese companies are getting to a point where they need to get funding from the public market and many will try to stretch valuations as high as possible,” said Julia Pan, a Shanghai-based analyst at UOB Kay Hian. “As you saw with the price tank for the companies that listed last year, if their business can’t support it, they will fall back down.”

Successful IPOs tend to be backed by China’s big firms

The IPOs that have held their own over the past year, have tended to be backed by China’s largest internet corporations, including Tencent Holdings Ltd’s China Literature Ltd and Baidu Inc’s iQiyi Inc. But they are in the minority.

The clouds hanging over recent listings range from concerns about their ability to cope with emerging regulation, the intense competition of China’s tech scene to questioning their legitimacy.

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Prominent short sheller Carson Block has targeted China Internet Nationwide Financial Services Inc, saying that almost none of its lending business was real and that the only person taking out loans was its chairman. While the Beijing-based company rejected the accusations, its shares are still down nearly 50 per cent since its November high.

For Qudian, investors have been spooked by the Beijing-based company’s inability to address concerns about regulatory crackdowns. It has yet to secure licenses that could be needed for non-deposit lending operations and has told investors it can’t assure them that “past or existing practices would not be deemed to violate any existing or future laws, regulations and governmental policies.” PPDai also said it might not meet a deadline to comply with certain regulations that require companies to get rid of prohibited loans.

Regulatory uncertainty is an overhang

“Regulatory uncertainty is a huge overhang on the sector,“ said Dexter Hsu, a Taipei-based analyst at Macquarie. “It’s the mid-sized companies that are having the hardest time and consolidation might happen down the road.”

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Sogou typifies how quickly the Chinese tech scene can change. While much of its appeal came from being the sole search provider on Tencent’s enormous WeChat platform, since the social network giant started offering its own search service, Sogou’s position has weakened its position and contributed to the stock’s decline.

Some of that concern about the sector has already started to affect the looming IPOs.

Xiaomi, which filed on May 3 to go public in Hong Kong, had been targeting an eye-popping US$100 billion valuation for its debut but is now eyeing US$60 billion to US$70 billion, people familiar with the matter have said.

High growth for the market as a whole is fading
Jerry Liu, UBS Group AG

Inke Inc, a Chinese live streaming app that is reported to be seeking US$300 million in its IPO, filed to go public in March but has yet to get clearance for a listing. While the company says it’s the second-largest live video-streaming platform by revenue and paying users, competitors including YY Inc and Momo Inc are larger in both metrics. On top of that, the company is besieged by newcomers like Douyin that offer shorter video uploads while Inke’s active users, paying users and revenue are all falling.

“Their figures do not look pretty,” said Pan.

Living in the shadows

Then there are companies that have lived in the shadows of titans, trying to carve out a niche in already red hot competitive sectors like e-commerce. Chinese fashion site Meilishuo, is said to be seeking an IPO for a valuation of at least US$4 billion. It’s facing intense competition from sites that tap into social media promotions such as Pinduoduo, which recently was said to have raised more than US$1 billion in a private funding round, and Xiaohongshu, which is said to be seeking at least US$200 million of financing.

“High growth for the market as a whole is fading,” said Jerry Liu, an analyst with UBS Group AG. “Companies have to increasingly focus on gaining market share and improving monetisation of their products.”