LINE Is Big in Bangkok and May Be Worth Lining Up in Your Portfolio

 | Jul 13, 2018 | 10:00 AM EDT
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As promised, I'll be filing dispatches from my Asia trip during July. My jump-off point is Bangkok.

This beautiful city certainly has its share of grit, and perhaps Murray Head was right when he sang that it would make a hard man humble. Bangkok's listed population is about the same population as New York City, but it feels to me that there are at least three times as many people, and traffic is much more chaotic than in the Big Apple. Avoiding traffic involves taking the BTS, Bangkok's efficient monorail service.

On the BTS it is easy to witness what the locals do to kill time during their commute. Just like any public transport system in the States, the majority of folks are engaged in one activity: staring at their phones. Some things are truly global.

In addition to the ubiquity of Facebook (FB) and Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google, which are in wide use here, there is one local app that one wouldn't see on the NYC subway: LINE. LINE Corp. (LN) has Japanese-Korean parentage and went public in a joint NYSE-Tokyo initial public offering in July 2016. LINE's current market cap is $10.7 billion, so while it may pale in comparison to FB or GOOGL, it is certainly an easily investable name.

LINE is clearly No. 1 in messaging among Thais, a position it also occupies in its home Japanese market. For every person I have seen using Facebook's native Messenger app or FB-owned WhatsApp, I have seen 100 people using LINE, and all my local Thai friends communicate on LINE.

In terms of monetization, LINE offers a myriad of options comparable to those of Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s (TCEHY) China-dominant WeChat.

LINE can be used for payment (LINE Pay,) delivery of food and goods (LINE Man,) ride hailing (LINE Taxi) and social gaming, too. LINE's most widely known images are its cute cartoon bear and rabbit, which drive its in-app purchases of stickers. If you don't know what stickers are, ask your kids, but they are mini-animations that make emojis look like Tinker Toys.

LINE stock has started to move of late after really doing very little in the first two years of its life as a public company. The Nasdaq rose sharply from July 2016 to April 2018, but LN shares had not joined the party, owing to a decline in user count in that period. LINE has been doing well in Japan, but its other three markets -- Taiwan and Indonesia in addition to Thailand -- have shown collective decline in users in the past two years.

The massive amount of advertising LINE is doing in the Thai market -- its LINE rabbit even adorns the smart card used to pay for Bangkok's BTS -- surely must pay off, though. LINE's main source of revenue is advertising, a clever business model, and that revenue combined with the other LINE-branded monetization apps should lead to real cash earnings, not just eyeballs on its messenger.

The other ubiquitous app here is Grab, the ride-hailing service. It absolutely has been a must-have for me, as any location off the BTS is hard to find and hard to reach with the network of cabs, three-wheeled tuk tuks and motorcycle taxis driven by non-English-speaking drivers who constantly are weaving in and out of traffic. I prefer to arrive alive, I don't speak Thai, and I don't always have Thai baht on me, and Grab has not failed me yet.

Owing to its sale of its Southeast Asia assets to Grab in March, Uber is now Grab's largest shareholder with a 27.5% stake. Founded in 2012 as an offshoot of a Harvard Business School project by Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling, Grab's many financing rounds have included such investing giants as Tiger, Vertex, Toyota, Honda and Chinese ride-hailing colossus Didi Chuxing, in which Apple Inc. (AAPL) holds a stake.

If Grab ever goes public, buy the shares the first day and put them in a figurative drawer. It's a must-own. Also, Indonesia's Go-Jek -- founded by Nadiem Makarim, an Harvard Business School classmate of Anthony Tan -- is touted as the next Grab, just as Grab has become the next Uber, so keep an eye out for that one on the public markets, too.

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