Walmart's Flipkart buy gets rude welcome from market

Walmart’s deal to buy a controlling stake in India’s biggest online seller is meeting scepticism on Wall Street.

The world’s largest retailer will acquire a 77% holding in Flipkart Group for $16bn, the companies said earlier on Wednesday. Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal and other shareholders will hold the remainder. The tie-up values the Indian e-commerce giant at about $20.8bn and marks a blow against rival as the battle for e-commerce supremacy goes global.

The deal - Walmart’s biggest ever - gives it greater access to India’s e-commerce market, which Morgan Stanley has estimated will grow to $200bn in about a decade. But it will take some time for the business to turn profitable, and analysts on a Wednesday morning call about the deal adopted a cautious tone. S&P Global Ratings changed its outlook on Walmart to negative.

“As Flipkart is expected to generate meaningful losses for at least the next few years, this is clearly an investment for the future,” Moody’s analyst Charlie O’Shea wrote in a note.

Walmart shares dropped as much as 4.2% to $82.12 as of 10:28 in New York - the lowest intraday price since October. The company’s stock was already down 13% this year through Tuesday’s close.

The retail giant declined to give a specific timetable on profitability, saying only that Flipkart’s losses should decline “in the mid to long term”. The deal will shave 25 cents to 30 cents per share from this year’s earnings, with that impact doubling the following year.

“It’s typical of a business like this that, as you scale up, you will have losses. We expect those losses to continue for a little while,” Walmart’s Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs said in a phone interview.

Negative outlook

S&P lowered Walmart’s outlook to negative from stable, citing increasing leverage and risks stemming from the company’s spending to expand online and globally as it continues its share buyback programme. The credit firm rates Walmart AA, the third-highest investment grade.

The negative outlook shows there’s “about a one-in-three chance” that Walmart’s strategy shift could result in a downgrade over the next two years, the credit-ratings company said in a statement.

With the Walmart tie-up, Flipkart gets additional capital and expertise to battle Amazon, which has spent billions of dollars to gain customers in India. Online sales in the world’s second most-populous nation are growing about 35% a year, according to data tracker Euromonitor, fueled by a rising middle class and urbanisation that present an attractive environment for e-commerce.

“We’ve been looking at this business for some time. India needs no introduction; it’s a fantastically growing market. And it fits right in with our strategy,” Judith McKenna, Walmart’s international chief executive officer, said in a phone interview.

Walmart was upstaged earlier on Wednesday when Masayoshi Son, chief executive officer of SoftBank Group, confirmed during a briefing in Tokyo that the US retailer had agreed to buy control of Flipkart. SoftBank invested $2.5bn in the Indian company and that stake will be worth about $4bn in the deal, Son said.

Indian plan

For the US retailer, acquiring a stake in Flipkart enables it to tap into India’s retail market without building stores. Walmart once envisioned operating hundreds of locations across India but it has been unable to open traditional units because of long-standing governmental rules for so-called multibrand international retailers.

Walmart entered India in 2009 through a joint venture with Bharti Enterprises, and took full control of that business in 2013. It currently operates 20 wholesale clubs in India that serve small businesses.

Walmart’s investment includes $2bn in new equity funding, which the companies say will be used to spur Flipkart’s growth. The companies said they’re also in talks with other potential investors, which could result in the US company’s stake being lowered, though it will retain majority ownership. Flipkart will maintain a separate brand and operating structure, the companies said.

The deal is the largest-ever in e-commerce, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The deal represents a missed opportunity for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has also failed to create a meaningful presence in China. Amazon needs to succeed in another high-growth market to prove it can effectively replicate its model beyond North America, and it has been aggressively expanding in India.

Bezos has committed $5.5bn to the country and his local chief, Amit Agarwal, has made progress by adapting the site to local conditions.

Despite its size and global clout, Walmart has found it necessary to forge alliances in its battle against Amazon, which last year bought Whole Foods Market to gain a foothold in the US grocery industry.

In China, Walmart has acquired a 12% stake in e-commerce player, and in Japan it teamed up this year with Tokyo’s Rakuten. India is the next big potential prize after the US and China, where foreign retailers have made little progress against Alibaba Group Holding.

“We’ve been talking about how we want to get this global portfolio where we want it,” CFO Biggs said. “Nobody will be better positioned in Asia than we will be.”

Payments app

Walmart executives said they were particularly interested in PhonePe, Flipkart’s mobile payments app, along with its fashion sites Myntra and Jabong. Walmart has tried to make a bigger push into apparel online with acquisitions like Bonobos and ModCloth, along with a partnership with department-store chain Lord & Taylor.

Flipkart’s sales grew more than 50% in its most recent fiscal year to $4.6bn, Walmart said, compared with $11.5bin for Walmart’s US e-commerce business.

The deal also shows how Walmart CEO Doug McMillon is reshaping the company’s global operations, prioritising faster-growing markets like China and India over more mature ones. Last month, the company agreed to cede control of its UK grocery chain, Asda, merging it with British rival J Sainsbury. Walmart will retain a 42% stake in that combined company.

Flipkart competes with Amazon across a range of product categories. Including fashion portals Myntra and Jabong, it controls 34% of India’s online sales, based on Euromonitor data, followed by Amazon, with 27%.

The Indian company has attracted investment from a range of companies that also includes Microsoft, Tencent Holdings and Tiger Global Management, which will retain stakes.

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