Baidu Feeds the Bad News Bears

The bears are piling up on Baidu (NASDAQ: BIDU  ) .

A whopping 10.6 million shares were sold short as of mid-February according to Nasdaq's latest bi-monthly update. This is nearly twice the number of bearish wagers that were placed on China's leading search engine a year ago. Baidu's short interest hadn't topped 9 million over the past year until now.

The worrywarts appear to be right -- for now.

February wasn't a good month for Baidu. The shares surrendered 16% of their value last month. A poorly received quarterly report early in the month didn't help, and concerns about Qihoo 360 (NYSE: QIHU  ) gaining ground since rolling out its own search platform last summer continue to linger.

Qihoo 360 reports tomorrow, and it could ding Baidu if it has some encouraging metrics to offer up on its nascent search initiatives.

This doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of things working in Baidu's favor here.

  • Baidu's claims of Qihoo infringement -- alleging that Qihoo is crawling and copying Baidu's content -- is gaining legal steam in a Beijing court.
  • The dot-com speedster now claims to be serving up 5 billion search queries a day across search, community, and partner sites.
  • Groupon's recent failures have soured companies on daily deals sites, but that didn't stop Baidu from rolling out a second group-buying portal last month. Groupon may be shocking the market with its red ink, but at least Baidu's profitability has remained intact as it diversifies its model.

Then we get to Baidu's valuation.

Baidu's stock may be trading 44% below its all-time peak two summers ago, but the Chinese Internet bellwether is still growing at a healthy clip. The end result is that Baidu is now fetching just 17 times this year's projected profitability and less than 14 times next year's target.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) -- which is not only the company that Qihoo replaced in launching its own search engine, but is also growing at a much slower pace than Baidu -- is trading at higher profit multiples.

This doesn't mean that the bears are wrong. If Qihoo 360 continues to gain market share or if Baidu's growth gets tripped up as a result of company- or country-specific pitfalls, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the bears win again. However, given the growing record number of speculators betting against Baidu, it also wouldn't be a surprise to see the stock rally as the result of a short squeeze the next time that the fallen dot-com darling has something good to say.

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