Is Sea Limited (SE) A Smart Long-Term Buy?

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Hayden Capital, an investment management firm, published its fourth-quarter 2020 Investor Letter – a copy of which can be downloaded here. A net return of 22.1% was recorded by the fund for the Q4 of 2020, outperforming both its S&P 500 and MSCI World benchmark that delivered a 12.2% and 14.4% return respectively in the same period. You can view the fund’s top 5 holdings to have a peek at their top bets for 2021.

In their Q4 2020 investor letter, Hayden Capital mentioned Sea Limited (NYSE: SE) and shared their insights on the company. Sea Limited is a Westlake, Texas-based consumer Internet company that currently has a $122.9 billion market capitalization. Since the beginning of the year, SE delivered an 18.79% return, impressively extending its 12-month gains to 430.39%. As of April 01, 2021, the stock closed at $236.45 per share.

Here is what Hayden Capital has to say about Sea Limited in their Q4 2020 investor letter:

“Sea Ltd (SE): When I wrote our Q4 2019 letter about Shopee launching a Brazilian business, it seemed very few investors or competitors knew or cared.

A year ago, I wrote: “This is the first test for the ecommerce marketplace outside of its Southeast Asia home base. Will the platform’s fun and addicting features overcome a lack of local knowledge and presence? It’s hard to predict consumer behavior and how accepting users will be to a platform – especially one that’s a foreign culture and 10,000 miles away. The only way to know is to experiment and watch the results closely.

Empirically though, it seems that what consumers find entertaining in Asia, generally translates well to Brazil (and Shopee really is as much an entertainment platform, as an ecommerce one).

For example, just look at the top 10 free apps in Brazil. Two are utility messaging apps, so we’ll ignore those (WhatsApp and
Facebook Messenger). But among the remaining eight apps, they’re all entertainment based and overwhelmingly Asian. Four are from China (Kwai, TikTok, VStatus, TikTok Lite), two from Singapore (Free Fire and Shopee, both Sea Ltd apps), and one from the US (Instagram). The commonality is that all these apps are experts at creating addictive habits, as evidenced by their personalized recommendations, avg usage time, number of logins per day per user, etc.” (LINK)

I distinctly remember having conversations with several Brazilian hedge funds as recently as last summer who were investors in Sea Ltd. When the topic of Brazil came up, many of them didn’t even know Shopee was operating in their own backyard!

Part of this stems from the fact that Shopee tends to enter markets with a bottoms-up approach. Instead of going after urban, high disposable income users first (of which these hedge fund professionals were certainly part of), they tend to initially go after those with only a few hundred or thousand USD of annual disposable income. These users tend to reside outside of major cities, have fewer choices for recreational pastime (thus turning to gaming, short-form videos, or online shopping for entertainment), can’t afford “branded” items and thus are willing to take a chance on cheaper (but still good quality) un-branded goods, and are willing to wait several weeks for it to be shipped from Asian factories.

Anyone who has studied Pinduoduo (Nasdaq: PDD) in China, will recognize this strategy and just how large of a market these consumers can be. As Shopee gains popularity in a market, they will then start to slowly move “up-market”, and cater to more urban and higher-income consumers. They’ve already followed this exact strategy in Southeast Asia, and this is the point they’ve reached in Brazil over the past year.

Shopee made its first big social push last fall, hiring over a dozen influencers with 1M+ followers to promote Shopee’s Black Friday sale (LINK). In addition, they also released their first Brazilian TV commercial last year.

It seems these initiatives are working. Shopee now consistently ranks in Brazil’s top 5 apps (while sister app Free Fire, is also the #1 grossing app). In addition, Shopee also moved Pine Kyaw (LINK), one of their key lieutenants in Vietnam who successfully helped Shopee fight off competitors (Tiki, Lazada, Sendo), to Brazil last May.

For the past year, the company has insisted publicly that the Brazil initiative is still a “test” initiated by the cross-border team. While this may have been true at first, it’s clear this is no longer a “test”, but rather a strategic focus for Shopee and posed to be the next battleground. It’s likely the company has chosen to remain tight-lipped so as to not tip off competitors, while they quietly “position the troops” to prepare for a larger assault.

For example, Shopee is also starting to allow local sellers to join the platform and list their local inventory (LINK). By definition, this is no longer a cross-border initiative (i.e. allowing their Southeast Asian sellers to sell to Brazilian consumers, and then shipping the goods directly from Asia. This is the model Aliexpress follows.).

This is the start of a localized marketplace. And similar to their early days in Southeast Asia, the goal is to reach the “tipping point” at which the marketplace becomes self-sustainable (this concept is discussed in our Q1 2019 letter; LINK). The weapons of choice in reaching critical mass: social media influencers to drive rust & awareness, free shipping & discounts to acquire / convert these new customers, and gamification of shopping to drive continued engagement, habit building, and repeat purchases.

Given all of this, and the strong (but early) traction in the local Shopee Brazil marketplace, investors need to keep an eye on this development. It is the smallest GMV contribution among Shopee’s countries currently, but a large inherent call option in the valuation. Something that so far, seems greatly underappreciated. I suspect at some point in the near future, Shopee’s management team will disclose more on the initiative, and at which point investors will be surprised by how Shopee managed to quietly build one of the largest marketplaces in Brazil.”

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Our calculations show that Sea Limited (NYSE: SE) does not belong in our list of the 30 Most Popular Stocks Among Hedge Funds. As of the end of the fourth quarter of 2020, Sea Limited was in 115 hedge fund portfolios, compared to 95 funds in the third quarter. SE delivered an 18.79% return in the past 3 months.