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The next hot China stock ... Yahoo?

@CNNMoneyTech May 5, 2011: 1:36 PM ET
yahoo, google, internet, stocks, investing, china

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz has a well-known proclivity for salty language. She'd fit in swimmingly at a stevedore convention. Or in a Martin Scorsese movie.

So in that spirit, I ask the following question: Is Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) a good @*#!%&# buy right now? Some long-suffering shareholders seem to be saying, "Bleep yeah!"

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Shares of Yahoo are up nearly 11% this year and the stock is within 1% of its 52-week high. This is also one of those rare moments since Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) went public in the summer of 2004 that Yahoo has been the stock with momentum.

Google's shares have dropped almost 10% so far in 2011 -- and much of that decline has taken place since Larry Page took over as CEO from Eric Schmidt on April 4.

At first blush, all of this is -- to use a great Lewis Carroll phrase -- "curioser and curioser."

Yahoo isn't necessarily doing well. Analysts are predicting that profits and sales will fall this year compared to 2010. Google, on the other hand, is expected to report a 15% jump in earnings per share and 25% increase in sales.

"We know there's not a lot of growth with this company. It's losing market share to Facebook and Google," said Martin Pyykkonen, an analyst with Wedge Partners in Denver. "There is value in its user base and traffic but the stock's runup isn't about fundamentals."

So what's Yahoo got that Google doesn't? China.

"It's funny how you can just say one little word with five letters and that can explain how well Yahoo has done," said Scott Kessler, an equity analyst with Standard & Poor's in New York.

Google has scaled back in China due to censorship concerns, and that has benefited China search engine leader Baidu (BIDU).

Where's Yahoo rank in the Fortune 500?

But Yahoo has a 40% stake in China's Alibaba Group. Alibaba owns two of the hottest dot-coms in China: e-commerce site Taobao and online payment company Alipay. (Think of them as China's eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500) and PayPal if you will.)

There are growing hopes that Yahoo will be able to somehow cash in on this investment, either by selling shares back to Alibaba or through eventual public offerings of individual Alibaba assets like Taobao and Alipay.

The red hot performance of China Internet stocks in the U.S. has only added to Yahoo's newfound allure. Shares of social networking firm Renren (RENN) rose nearly 30% Wednesday. And that actually makes Renren a laggard.

Web browser and security software developer Qihoo 360 (QIHU) and online video company Youku.com (YOKU) more than doubled on their first days of trading while online retailer Dandang (DANG) rose almost 90%.

"People are paying attention to Yahoo because of all these successful debuts from China. That's what is driving the stock," said Sandeep Aggarwal, an analyst with Caris & Co. in San Francisco.

Aggarwal estimates that Taobao could be the world's second most valuable private Internet company, trailing only Facebook. As such, Aggarwal said a sum-of-the-parts value of all of Yahoo's assets could be as high as $23 a share.

That's more than 25% higher than Yahoo's current stock price. Of course, it's also about 25% lower than the $33 a share Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) offered for Yahoo back in 2008.

Considering that then-Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang rejected that deal -- only for Yahoo to later throw in the towel on its search business and form an alliance with Microsoft's Bing -- it's understandable why some long-time Yahoo investors may not be that excited about Yahoos' resurgence. But I digress.

If Bartz is serious about cashing in her China chips, that bodes well for Yahoo. Clayton Moran, an analyst with Benchmark Company in Delray Beach, Fla., added that Yahoo may also want to sell its Yahoo Japan stake to partner Softbank. That could raise even more money.

Silicon Valley flexes muscle in Washington

But Bartz may have to move quickly with Asia or watch her back. Investors have been antsy about Yahoo's strategic direction -- or lack thereof if you are a Yahoo critic.

And Yahoo now has a new prominent shareholder who could shake things up. Greenlight Capital, the hedge fund run by David Einhorn, bought Yahoo in the first quarter.

The good news about Einhorn is that he's well-known for taking short positions in stocks. So if he's buying Yahoo, it's the financial equivalent of Mikey from those old Life cereal commercials. "He likes it!"

However, Einhorn is known to dig in his heels when he is not satisfied with how a company he's invested in is being run.

Einhorn raved about the potential for Yahoo's Asian assets in Greenlight's first quarter letter, which was obtained and posted by financial blog Dealbreaker. He may not be thrilled if Yahoo doesn't do anything to "monetize" these assets soon.

"Einhorn is the first new big, credible investor to come in and articulate the rationale for what Yahoo could do with its Asian assets," Kessler said. "He is a smart and savvy investor, but he's also an activist."

So where does that leave anyone else considering whether or not to buy Yahoo now? Analysts do seem convinced that the company has to do something soon with its Asia treasure trove.

But even if Yahoo cashes in, what does it do after that? Moran suggested that the company could use money to buy back stock. That may not be enough.

Cashing in on China may make some investors happy in the short run but Bartz still has to figure out how to get Yahoo's core business back on steady footing for the long haul. If she doesn't do that, investors may start cussing like a sailor.

Or Bartz.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks. To top of page

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