By Adam Jourdan and Pei Li
SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese internet search firm Baidu Inc (NASDAQ:BIDU) posted a forecast-beating quarterly revenue increase and unveiled a U.S. listing plan for its Netflix-like video platform iQiyi as it looks to rev up new drivers for growth.
Baidu posted on Tuesday fourth quarter revenue of 23.6 billion yuan ($3.72 billion), up 29 percent against the same period a year ago and topping analysts' forecasts of 23.05 billion yuan and the company's own guidance.
The strong results are a major fillip for Baidu as it looks to ramp up spending on riskier gambles in autonomous driving and fend off cashed-up rivals such as Tencent Holdings Ltd and Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) Group Holding Ltd in online video content.
A U.S. listing would bring extra financial muscle for its popular iQiyi platform as it ramps up spending. Baidu said the size of any IPO was not yet set, but that it would likely remain iQiyi's controlling shareholder. iQiyi could be worth $8 billion or more, according to Reuters Breakingviews.
"An IPO will bolster iQiyi's position in the market and give it more cash to buy content or make content on their own," said Ni Shuang, Beijing-based Pacific Securities analyst, adding it would help Baidu keep pace with rivals in the space.
The strong quarterly showing - driven by the core search and news feed businesses - is also key to generating cash flow "to fund our new AI businesses", Baidu chief executive Robin Li told a post-earnings conference call.
The company's shares rose nearly 5 percent in extended trading after the results, overturning a nearly 4 percent fall since the start of the year.
Herman Yu, the firm's chief financial officer, said content costs rose 70 percent last year to 13.4 bln yuan as iQiyi acquired content. These costs would rise at a similar pace this year.
The firm will also raise R&D spending in areas like its Apollo open-source software platform for autonomous driving, which executives said would eventually become a "very material and significant revenue source for the company".
"Having said that, a key caveat is that this market will take time to build," chief operating officer Qi Lu told the conference call.
Strong results in its more traditional businesses were central to Baidu's success, with revenue from its core online marketing - including its search platform and news feed - jumping 26.3 percent to 20.4 billion yuan.
The results will help soothe Baidu investors as the company looks to turn around its fortunes after a series of missteps sparked steep losses in 2016 and hit its advertising revenue from internet searches.
Baidu, part of China's trinity of tech giants along with Alibaba and Tencent, posted net income of 4.16 billion yuan in the quarter ended Dec. 31, up from 4.13 billion yuan a year earlier.
Excluding one-time items, the company earned 14.9 yuan per ADS, above forecasts.
Baidu set its guidance for first-quarter revenue between 19.86 billion yuan and 20.97 billion yuan, a 25-32 percent increase against the same period of 2017.
That compared to analysts' average estimate of 21.18 billion yuan, although Baidu said its guidance was impacted by an accounting change, without which first-quarter revenue would have been 21.05 billion yuan to 22.23 billion yuan.
($1 = 6.3380 Chinese yuan renminbi)
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