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I can't be the only one waiting for 2009 to begin to give my portfolio a new chance to shine. One market that should bounce back nicely when the equity markets recover is China. Its stocks have been pummeled, even though the economy of the world's most populous nation is holding up substantially better than the rest of the world.
I took a look last week at the one search engine I would like to own heading into the Year of the Ox. This time I'm going to take a look at China, with an emphasis on the online stocks that I cover. China's leading Internet plays offer attractive valuations and typically more promising growth prospects than their stateside peers.
China gets wired
Just because I'm going to single out my top dot-com picks in China doesn't mean that the rest of the sectors don't offer compelling opportunities. There are certainly some compelling arguments to buy into advertisers, insurers, and infrastructure plays.
However, China's migration into cyberspace is early enough in its growth cycle to blow you away. China's audience of Internet users topped the United States' to take top honors over the summer, and we're still talking about only roughly one-fifth of the country being online at the moment.
The runners-up are ...
There are plenty of worthy stock candidates here. We should definitely start with Baidu.com (Nasdaq: BIDU ) . China's leading search engine has been hammered in recent weeks, after being grilled for accepting ads from unlicensed medical sponsors. Baidu didn't help foster confidence when it conceded that the seemingly small niche actually makes up a whopping 10% to 15% of its total revenue.
Baidu commands roughly two-thirds of the country's search queries, so it had little choice but to clean up its act. It booted the errant sponsors, and the next few quarters will be critical in determining the incident's financial impact in both advertiser spending and visitor usage.
The black eye is enough to keep Baidu out of gold medal contention, but it doesn't mean that Baidu won't be a huge winner. The stock is now trading at just 19 times next year's projected profitability. That's not too shabby for a stock that is expected to grow earnings by 91% this year and 37% in 2009.
Another runner-up that has stumbled lately is Ctrip.com (Nasdaq: CTRP ) . China's leading online travel portal has taken a hit since hosing down its near-term guidance last month. But travel within China for its economically improving citizenry still seems like a no-brainer over the long haul.
China Finance Online (Nasdaq: JRJC ) is another potential scorcher. The company runs premium and free ad-supported stock market research websites. The company was growing nicely even when Chinese equities first began to tank, as individual investors clamored for a well-researched edge. However, it, too, is feeling the pain lately. Thankfully, the company is deliciously profitable, growing, and trades at just twice the cash on its balance sheet.
There are other ways to play the dot-com boom. Telco heavies like China Netcom (NYSE: CN ) and China Telecom (NYSE: CHA ) are thriving in connecting the masses to the Web. I have also been a huge fan of the online gaming revolution for years. Some of the earliest Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations were the leaders in serving up addictive multiplayer role-playing fantasy games where millions play simultaneously.
And the winner is: Sohu.com
The best bang for your buck -- or yuan -- at the moment has to be Sohu.com (Nasdaq: SOHU ) . It is a fast-growing play in both search (with its Sogou engine) and online gaming (with the popularity of its Tian Long Ba Bu game).
It is on the multiplayer gaming front where Sohu has been a rocket lately, helping revenue and earnings soar 134% and 316%, respectively, in its latest quarter. Unlike other dot-com bellwethers like Baidu and SINA (Nasdaq: SINA ) , analysts have actually been raising Sohu's profit targets over the past three months.
Wall Street now sees Sohu earning $3.77 a share this year, and $4.53 in 2009. It's hard to pass on Sohu these days while it's trading at 10 times next year's projected net income.
Whether Sohu or one of the many runners-up catches your eye, now is the time to position yourself for the eventual Chinese stock market recovery.
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