Singapore’s Sea Swings Back to Loss After New Rivals Take a Toll

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(Bloomberg) — Sea Ltd. swung back to a loss in the third quarter, hit by flagging consumption and intensifying competition from Alibaba and TikTok on its home turf.

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The stock fell 11% in pre-market trading in New York after the company posted a net loss of $149 million, compared with a profit of $322 million the previous quarter. Southeast Asia’s largest internet firm reported a 4.9% rise in sales from a year earlier to $3.3 billion, versus the average estimate of $3.2 billion.

The results may stoke concerns that the US-listed company is sacrificing margins to stave off a charge from ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Lazada, or newer entrants such as PDD Holdings Inc.’s Temu. Sea plunged its most on record after founder Forrest Li declared in August his company will invest more in online retail arm Shopee and live-streaming to counter those platforms, which are appealing to younger shoppers.

Till recently, Sea’s strongest markets including Indonesia seemed under siege from TikTok and a new breed of video-oriented shopping services, which used popular influencers to sell a range of wares to an engaged, growing online population. But in September, Jakarta effectively forced TikTok to shut its shopping service, acting on a growing backlash from smaller merchants against the Chinese-owned platform.

Investors have been looking for clues since then on whether that abrupt exit will rekindle Sea. Before Indonesia, the market feared the Singaporean company — which reported more than a decade of losses after its 2009 founding — will sink back into the red. Compounding the situation are expectations that Southeast Asia’s internet economy will log its slowest growth on record this year, the result of an economic downturn with uncertain outcomes.

Sea’s other big business, the gaming division centered around Garena, has shrunk rapidly in 2023 given a lack of new blockbuster titles. But it recently restored its marquee title Free Fire to Indian app stores after a surprise 2022 ban.

Read more: Sea, Grab Face Slowest Southeast Asia Online Growth in Years

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says

Sea’s e-commerce revenue, driving 68% of the 1H total, should gain from Indonesian regulators’ shutdown of TikTok’s shopping platform, which faces similar risks in Malaysia. Online-shopping gross merchandise value (GMV) likely fell or stagnated in 1Q-2Q, a trend that could improve as Shopee regains lost market share from rivals amid a reacceleration in marketing spending. With Temu, the overseas arm of China’s e-tailer Pinduoduo also encroaching on Southeast Asia, such investments could intensify and cloud Sea’s net profit path. This is partially mitigated by a tepid recovery in the digital entertainment segment — driving 45% of 1H adjusted Ebitda — amid a rebound in Free Fire’s player engagement.

Free cash flow could remain under pressure amid e-commerce expansion spending.

– Nathan Naidu, analyst

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Li’s company had overhauled its business to focus on profitability earlier this year. Sea embarked on an aggressive cost-cutting drive to reach profit, pivoting to a focus on the bottom-line as revenue growth decelerated from the triple-digit percentage rates it enjoyed as recently as two years ago. The company froze salaries and slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses to achieve positive cash flows.

To jumpstart growth, Li said in August he intends to ramp up investments into e-commerce arm Shopee. He is stepping up efforts to build out its live-streaming arm, an offensive move that could erode margins and trigger a price war with TikTok and Alibaba. He argued that was necessary to defend its market share.

Beyond deep-pocketed competitors Alibaba and ByteDance, local rivals such as GoTo Group are also piling the pressure on Sea. GoTo, owner of Indonesian e-commerce contender Tokopedia, almost doubled its net revenue during the June quarter.

Read more: Sea’s Path to Profit Paved With Layoffs, Single-Ply Toilet Paper

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