Baidu among latest tech giants to deliver disappointing outlook

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Baidu Inc. predicted revenue may slide as much as 13% this quarter, joining its fellow technology giants in warning about the impact of the deadly coronavirus.

China’s internet search leader forecast a 5% to 13% plunge in sales to between 21 billion yuan ($3 billion) and 22.9 billion yuan in the March quarter, missing an average projection for 23.4 billion yuan. Its U.S.-traded shares slid as much as 1.6% in extended trading.

From Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the world’s largest corporations have either scaled back on projections or warned of a hit to their operations from Covid-19. Apart from the uncertainty of the outbreak, Baidu has been grappling with a slowing home economy and competition from upstarts like ByteDance Inc. that’ve lured advertisers away and depressed marketing rates. Chief Executive Officer Robin Li said it will take time for the world’s No. 2 economy to recover.

“The return of economic growth will be a long-term issue after the epidemic, but many new opportunities are emerging,” the billionaire founder told employees in an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg.

Certain businesses can thrive despite the epidemic, including online entertainment and education, Li added. Baidu’s Netflix-style unit iQiyi Inc. projected a better-than-expected revenue gain of 2% to 8% this quarter.

“The virus has affected consumer spending, so naturally advertisers will want to postpone their budgets,” said David Dai, a Hong Kong-based analyst with Bernstein.

In recent days, anxiety has mounted about the spread of the virus outside of China, where it originated. But Baidu executives on Friday emphasized they remained upbeat about a gradual return to normality.

“Business activities have started to pick up as people return to work. At Baidu, our employees are gradually returning to the office, applying strict safety measures,” Chief Financial Officer Herman Yu told analysts on a conference call. “We assume businesses across China will do the same, and that our marketing services will pick up at a faster pace into quarter-end.”

Baidu had earlier reported better-than-expected revenue for the quarter ended December, when ad demand stabilized and pressure from competitors eased. To offset stalling growth, it looked to improve its bottom line especially by tightening content costs related to iQiyi. Longer term, the company is investing gains from its core search and news services into divisions like driverless cars and smart speakers.

Baidu’s shares rallied after the company reported preliminary revenue for the December quarter that beat the highest of analysts’ estimates, but that gain’s mostly been erased since the epidemic triggered a broader selloff of Chinese stocks. The company has been surpassed in market value by rivals like Meituan Dianping and NetEase Inc. after shedding more than $11 billion last year.

“For the majority, or probably all of the industries who advertise on us, those kinds of demand don’t disappear -- they’re just postponed,” Li said on the call Friday. “If you plan to marry, you’ll still get married. If you plan to buy a car, you’ll still buy a car. If you plan to become prettier, you’ll still go for cosmetic surgery. This kind of demand will come back after the epidemic ends.”

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