Investors are besotted with digital China. Two booming internet firms show why
Mr Liu insists these costs can easily be dialled back. Experience of other marketplaces suggests otherwise. Uber, which also matches sellers (drivers) with buyers (riders), has been perpetually loss-making. Like Uber, Pinduoduo enjoys some “network effects”—the more buyers use its app, the more sellers it draws, who in turn attract new buyers, and so on. But, again as in ride-hailing, buyers and sellers face few costs in switching to another app that offers a better deal. JD.com and Alibaba have already launched Pinduoduo clones to their vast user base.
The market is giving Pinduoduo the benefit of the doubt. The pandemic appears to have done it no harm; cooped-up Chinese consumers have turned to the firm for necessities and, sometimes, a dose of retail therapy. With negligible business outside China, it is, like Meituan, shielded from the Sino-American tech war making life difficult for TikTok, with its mostly non-Chinese users, or Huawei, China’s telecoms champion. White House threats to expel Chinese firms from American exchanges have not dampened investors’ enthusiasm. Nor has the sudden departure of Mr Huang, who stepped down as its chief executive on July 1st and cut his stake in the company from 43% to 29% (he remains chairman and holds 81% of voting rights).
Meituan’s path to riches is clearer. It ended last year in the black for the first time. Its profitable food and travel arms have been gaining market share from rivals (such as Ele.me, Alibaba’s food-delivery app, and Ctrip, China’s biggest travel agency). That gives its loss-making divisions financial breathing room.
Ultimately, both firms embody the excitement over digital China’s bright prospects. But TAMP will only become the new BAT if both firms can match Tencent’s and Alibaba’s consistently fat profits. ■