Is Baidu's Growth Sustainable?

I'm a believer in growth stocks. As an analyst for our Motley Fool Rule Breakers service, I think you should be a believer too. But even I have to admit some growth stories are bogus, hence this regular series. We'll be taking a closer look at many of the market's great growth stocks to see which of them show real, numerically relevant signs of sustainability.

Next up in our series is Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) , China's leading search engine and one of our best-ever picks for Rule Breakers. It's also the company profiting most from Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) hobbled stance in the Sino Superpower.

Foolish facts

Metric

Baidu

CAPS stars (5 max)

**

Total ratings

4,065

Percent bulls

84.2%

Percent bears

15.8%

Bullish pitches

516 out of 654

Highest rated peers

On2 Technologies, iPass (Nasdaq: IPAS  ) , PHOTOCHANNEL NETWORKS

Data current as of Aug. 30.

Bears are growling at Baidu. Bears such as CAPS blogger SharePlanner are shorting the stock, reasoning that a lengthy rally has to end at some point. Others sense Baidu is overvalued.

"I'd love to be with Baidu, but I think the anti-Google craze got the best of investors for the time being. Eventually it will return to a reasonable price and then will outperform the market," wrote Foolish investor Twystedweb recently.

Fair enough. Baidu entered the day trading for 113 times normalized earnings. Trouble is, Baidu has never traded on the cheap on an earnings basis. Wall Street, meanwhile, has a history of underestimating the company's earnings power.

The elements of growth

Metric

Last 12 Months

2009

2008

Normalized net income growth

89.6%

44.6%

88.9%

Revenue growth

54.1%

39.1%

83.3%

Gross margin

74.3%

69.9%

70.1%

Receivables growth

48%

74.2%

44.3%

Shares outstanding

348 mil.

347.5 mil.

345.2 mil.

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

There's good news in this table:

  • Looking at the bold text suggests that 2009 was an anomaly rather than a drop-off as both revenue and net income growth have accelerated over the past 12 months.
  • Even better: Gross margin is improving massively thanks to heady organic growth.
  • Minimal growth in shares outstanding suggests management cares about shareholders enough to not unnecessarily dilute their interests. Bravo!

Competitor checkup

Competitor

Normalized Net Income Growth (3 yrs.)

Baidu

80.8%

Google

25%

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  )

8.1%

Sina Corp. (Nasdaq: SINA  )

13%

Sohu.com (Nasdaq: SOHU  )

105.5%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Data as of Aug. 30.

Only fellow Rule Breakers pick Sohu.com is growing its bottom line faster than Baidu, yet Sohu is paying a price that Baidu isn't: Gross margin is down slightly since 2008. Modest price cuts could account for that. Either way, Baidu's margin gains are demonstrative of its power.

Grade = sustainable
Baidu is a classic Rule Breaker that's becoming a Rule Maker. Not only is it the top dog and first mover in the Chinese search market, but the stock has also shown price appreciation to go along with big revenue and earnings gains. And yet Fools and pundits alike continue to argue the shares are overvalued.

I'm not buying it. In its home market, Baidu is every bit as powerful as Google is here. As such, I like the stock as a sound market beater over the next 3 years and have rated it as such in my CAPS portfolio.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Do you like Baidu at these levels? Would you make it one of our 11 O'Clock Stocks? Let the debate begin in the comments box below, and when you're done, click here to get today's 11 O'Clock portfolio pick.

You can also ask Tim to evaluate a favorite growth story by sending him an email, or replying to him on Twitter.

For further Foolishness featuring Baidu:

Baidu, Google, and Sohu.com are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Sina is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended subscribers take a diagonal call position in Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He owned shares of Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. Its disclosure policy thinks Monty Python is sustainably funny.


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