Japan’s foreign minister was in China yesterday on an official visit, so I thought I’d start the week with 2 items on Chinese companies in the notoriously difficult Japanese market, including an interesting move into the chip sector by a sister company of PC giant Lenovo (HKEx: 992) and a hasty retreat by e-commerce giant Alibaba. Let’s start with the more intriguing of the items, which is seeing Hony Capital, the high-profile technology investment arm of Lenovo parent Legend Group, pairing with US private equity giant TPG Capital to make a planned bid for bankrupt memory chipmaker Elpida (Tokyo: 6665), according to a Japanese media report. (English article) If they made a bid, the pair would join 2 other suitors, Korea’s Hynix Semiconductor (Seoul: 000660) and US-based Micron (NYSE: MU) in pursuing the Japanese company that controls 12 percent of the global DRAM market. Frankly speaking, Hynix and Micron look like much better suitors for Elpida, as both are competitors that could consolidate the Japanese company into their own operations for an industry that has been in desperate need of consolidation for the last 5 or 6 years. But the Hony-TPG pairing does include one interesting element, namely the Lenovo connection. Lenovo itself has been trying to break into Japan for years now, following its 2005 purchase of IBM’s PC assets that included sales and distribution networks in Japan. More recently Lenovo has taken over the PC assets of NEC (Tokyo: 6701), and has discussed setting up a manufacturing base in Japan. (previous post) A successful bid for Elpida could theoretically provide Lenovo with a strong DRAM supply for its Japan-based business. Still, I would be wary of such a purchase since Lenovo has little or no experience in running a DRAM operation, and it’s unclear what kind of savings it could achieve by combining its Japanese PC business with Elpida’s money-losing memory business. Moving on, the other Japanese news bit has seen Alibaba’s Taobao service officially shutter its Japanese shopping channel that was operating on a platform run by Yahoo Japan (Tokyo: 4689). (Chinese article) Alibaba made a relatively low-key move into Japan several years ago, seeking to take advantage of ties to one of its earliest investors, Japan’s Softbank (Japan: 9984), which is also the main investor in Yahoo Japan along with Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) itself. Clearly the market hasn’t proven as easy to penetrate as Alibaba had hoped, and the media report even says that sales on the Taobao Japan channel were below the company’s targets. This withdrawal doesn’t surprise me at all, as Chinese firms of all types have had a difficult time in the Japanese market, which has become famous for its impenetrability by foreign firms. The other big Chinese web firm trying to crack the market is search leader Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU), which has spent millions of dollars over the last 3 years on a Japanese search portal with little results to show for that investment. This Taobao withdrawal from the market was completely predictable, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a similar retreat by Baidu within the next 12 months.
Bottom line: A bid by a Lenovo sister company for bankrupt Japanese chipmaker Elpida is likely to fail, while Baidu is likely to follow a recent Alibaba retreat from Japan in the next 12 months.
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