How China's tech trio — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent — could fare in 2020

Key Points
  • Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, known as the BATs, are three of China's most prominent technology firms.
  • These companies have faced a barrage of domestic issues against a backdrop of the U.S.-China trade war, which has morphed into a tech war.
  • CNBC looks at where these companies are headed in 2020.
The challenges — and opportunities — for Chinese tech giants in 2020
The challenges — and opportunities — for Chinese tech giants in 2020

Three of China's biggest technology companies — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent — have had mixed fortunes in 2019.

The trio, known by the acronym BAT, like the FAANG stocks in the U.S., have faced a barrage of domestic issues against a backdrop of the U.S.-China trade war, which has morphed into a tech war. Each company has fared differently.

CNBC takes a look at where the BATs are headed in 2020.

Baidu: intense competition

Baidu is China's biggest search engine with roughly 70% market share. It makes money from advertising, much like Google. But in 2019, the company faced some strong headwinds in the domestic market causing shares to fall by about 20% last year.

A security personnel stands guard at the opening session of Baidu's annual AI developers conference Baidu Create 2019 in Beijing, China, July 3, 2019.
Jason Lee | Reuters

China saw a slowing advertising market in 2019, with regulators also looking closely at online advertising. This has weighed on the market and also hit Baidu, which relies heavily on advertisement revenues. The company is also facing fierce competition at home.

ByteDance, the owner of social media app TikTok, launched a search product in China last year. Users in China are becoming more accustomed to so-called "super apps" like Tencent-owned WeChat.

These super apps allow users to do everything from electronic payments to booking flights and watching videos. These apps have become crucial for companies to lock users into their ecosystems and keep their eyeballs glued to their products.

Baidu, however, has been fighting back.

The company launches its own mobile offering called the Baidu App. It has seen strong user growth — a promising sign for a company that was slow to transition to mobile.

Meanwhile, the company has chosen to diversify its revenue stream.

Content has become a key part of that with iQiyi, a video streaming service similar to Netflix. Revenue from iQiyi reached 7.4 billion yuan ($1.04 billion) in the September quarter, up 7% year on year, while subscribers jumped 31% year on year.

Despite a tough year, Baidu posted better-than-expected results in the third quarter and its shares have shed some of the losses in the past few months.

Baidu could face some headwinds in 2020, analysts say.

"For the long-term, we believe the build of Baidu's mobile ecosystem is still challenging given large mobile apps are all closed system and it is hard to index the content," China Renaissance said in a note from November. "We remain conservative on the progress of pushing mobile traffic and mobile revenue given the competition environment will likely remain intense in 2020."

Longer term though, Baidu may find some relief in newer technologies.

Baidu has been placing bets on future technologies, including driverless cars. It has also been pushing its cloud division and smart speakers in China, which some analysts consider to be a long-term growth driver.

"Cloud, smart devices and autonomous driving continue to progress to drive future growth," Jefferies said in a November note.

Analysts on average have a $148.37 price target on Baidu's stock, representing a 5% increase from Thursday's close.

Alibaba: 'new retail'

Alibaba has been the best-performing stock among the BAT trio. Shares were up about 55% in 2019 with the company seemingly firing on all cylinders.

There were initial concerns that a slowdown in China's economy could dampen Chinese consumer demand.

But Alibaba's core commerce division, which accounts for about 85% of revenue, remained resilient throughout the year as Chinese consumers continued to flock online. Revenue for core commerce jumped 40% year on year in the September quarter.

Alibaba's cloud division, which analysts see as crucial to the future of the company, continued to flex its muscle. Cloud computing revenue rose 64% year on year in the September quarter.

A screen shows Alibaba's sales volume exceeding 100 billion yuan after one hour during 2019 Alibaba 11.11 Global Shopping Festival on November 11, 2019 in Hangzhou, China.
VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images

Alibaba has also been pushing a strategy it calls "new retail," which aims at combining the online and offline elements of its business such as payments, physical stores and food delivery.

Jefferies said in a recent note that Alibaba will benefit from China's rising middle class and increased use by smaller cities toward e-commerce platforms and data.

"It is a clear leader with pursuit of a digital economy strategy covering over 960 million users and with strong synergistic effects among its offerings of online retail, local services, digital entertainment, logistics and payments — all driven by a focus on user experience and product innovations that differentiate it from peers," Jefferies wrote in a note.

Alibaba also managed to pull off a secondary listing in Hong Kong, with shares trading above the listing price.

Still, Alibaba is running into some headwinds.

In food delivery, it faces off competition from Meituan. While in the e-commerce space, and Pinduoduo are potential rivals to Alibaba.

Analysts are positive on the stock going forward. Analysts on average have a $234.63 price target on Alibaba's stock, representing an increase of nearly 6% from Thursday's close.

Tencent: diversification

Tencent, one of the world's biggest gaming companies, runs China's largest messaging app WeChat with over 1 billion users.

In 2018, the Chinese government froze video game approvals. Video games needed regulatory approval before they could be released and monetized in China. The approval freeze was bad news for the company as online games are a huge part of Tencent's overall revenues.

But by the end of 2018, China reinstated the approvals and Tencent's online gaming division saw some recovery. Online games revenue grew by 11% year-on-year in the third quarter.

Like Baidu, the weak advertising market also hurt Tencent. But in the third quarter, its advertising division roared back to life.

Tencent has various avenues for advertising, but one that analysts are excited about is WeChat Moments — this is the social media function of WeChat and Tencent has been placing advertisements in this feed. Social and other advertising revenue jumped 32% year-on-year in the third quarter.

A Tencent sign at the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, China, October 20, 2019.
Aly Song | Reuters

Tencent has also been diversifying: its cloud computing and financial technology divisions are growing. Tencent runs a payments platform via WeChat called WeChat Pay.

Still, Tencent faces some challenges ahead.

In the third quarter of 2019, profit attributable to equity holders of the company fell 13% while its net margin also decreased. This margin pressure could continue into 2020.

"Even though the company is expected to maintain profit momentum via cost control, we believe that margins will still be under pressure," China-based investment bank, Guotai Junan Securities, said in a recent note.

Others say Tencent has some key gaming titles on the market and a strong pipeline which should support its video games business, although weakness in the PC market could offset the growth of mobile.

"Revenue growth of smartphone games is expected to be further strengthened in 4Q 2019 as well as 2020, mainly due to the expected strong game pipeline. However, we are negative towards revenue growth of PC client games and believe that it may partially drag down growth of online games revenue in FY19-FY20," Guotai Junan Securities said.

Analysts on average have a 415.79 Hong Kong dollar price target on Tencent's stock, representing a nearly 5% increase from Thursday's closing price. Tencent shares were up nearly 20% in 2019.