Baidu shares soar as Google weighs leaving China; UBS sees windfall either way

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Baidu shares soar as Google weighs leaving China

NEW YORK — Baidu, the biggest search engine in China, is reaping a windfall from Google’s threat to pull out of the country.

The company’s stock jumped $47.40, or 12 percent, to $433.89 Wednesday.

Baidu handles about two-thirds of all search queries in China. It stands to grow even bigger if Google — its second-place rival with a little under a third of the market — pulls out of the country.

Google Inc. operates in China under rules that restrict some pornographic and politically sensitive material from showing up in its search results. But after uncovering cyber attacks originating in China against human rights activists and U.S. companies, Google said it will stop censoring its results and may pull out of the country entirely.

UBS analyst Wenlin Li said Baidu Inc. is the winner either way.

If Google follows through on its threat, “Baidu would emerge as the dominant player with even more bargaining power with its customers,” Li told investors in a note Wednesday, but added that even if Google stays in China, advertisers may still have concerns about spending on the site.

Still, the analyst argues a pullout is the most likely scenario. According to Li’s checks, Google’s site in China has already lifted censoring filters for some keywords, which could quickly put it at odds with the Chinese government.

Li upgraded Baidu’s stock to “Buy” from “Neutral” and raised its price target to $523 from $380.

Standard & Poor’s Equity analyst Scott Kessler put the odds of a Google pullout — temporary or permanent — at greater than 50 percent. And given the likelihood, he hiked his price target for Baidu shares to $500 from $350.

Google’s stock fell $7.97, or 1.4 percent, to $582.51.

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