Why Alibaba’s stock price fell despite better-than-expected quarterly results

February 3, 2021, 7:03 AM UTC

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Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group on Tuesday reported fiscal third-quarter financial results that beat analysts’ forecasts, but its share price slipped after the announcement amid an ongoing regulatory crackdown and uncertainty about Alibaba’s iconic founder Jack Ma.

Alibaba’s revenue grew 37% year on year to reach $33.9 billion. Its online retail marketplaces gained 22 million customers in China since the end of the previous quarter, and its fast-growing cloud-computing sector achieved profitability for the first time ever in the quarter ended Dec. 31.

Despite Alibaba’s better-than-expected results, shares were down 4% on Wednesday morning in Hong Kong following Tuesday evening’s earnings report. The dual-listed firm’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange closed down nearly 4% on Tuesday.

“The market’s focus on possible regulatory risk may be obscuring Alibaba’s strong performance,” noted Brock Silvers, chief investment officer at Kaiyuan Capital. Chinese regulators have been targeting Alibaba and its fintech affiliate Ant Group since late last year.

Alibaba chairman and chief executive Daniel Zhang acknowledged the matter on a Tuesday earnings call after announcing Alibaba’s quarterly results. “I would like to address another subject that everyone is equally focused on, which is the potential impact of China’s changing regulatory environment on Internet platform companies,” he said.

Alibaba shares are currently down roughly 17% from highs in October, despite a partial rebound in January when Jack Ma appeared at an online event after his disappearance from public life sparked rumors about his whereabouts.

“There are still external factors to worry investors,” Silvers says, pointing to the “regulatory troubles” of Ant Group and the fact that Ma “remains mostly unseen” in public.

Jack Ma uncertainties

On Nov. 3, days after Ma made public comments critiquing China’s state-owned banks and its financial sector, Chinese authorities suspended the planned initial public offering of Ant Group, which Ma also founded, citing regulatory concerns. The fintech giant hasn’t received a new IPO date, and Chinese regulators have issued a slew of new rules that Ant must comply with before it can list, including reportedly being reclassified as a financial holding company overseen by China’s central bank.

Analysts concur that the overhaul will cut Ant’s growth and profitability, with one scenario projecting a 49% decrease in Ant’s valuation. The changes will affect Alibaba, which holds a 33% equity stake in Ant. On the earnings call, Zhang cited Ant’s ongoing restructuring but said Alibaba is “unable to make a complete and fair assessment on the impact that these changes and uncertainties will have on Alibaba Group.”

After Ant’s scrapped IPO, the famously extroverted Ma didn’t appear in public or online until late January, when he spoke via video for a philanthropy event. Alibaba’s share price jumped as much as 11% after he resurfaced, a clear sign that investors associate the company with its controversial founder even though he no longer holds any official position at Alibaba.

Alibaba’s strong third-quarter performance is evidence that the company can thrive without Ma, but the billionaire “serves as a proxy for regulatory concerns,” says Silvers.

The Ant crackdown was just the first in a series of regulatory actions to hit the Alibaba empire.

On Dec. 24, China’s market watchdog fined Alibaba’s Tmall online shopping site for pricing irregularities, and on the same day announced it was conducting an antitrust probe into Alibaba over concerns that the tech titan’s dominant market positions are hurting customers and are unfair to competitors.

Zhang said Alibaba is “fully cooperating” with Chinese market authority’s probe and said the company has established a “special task force” of leaders from its various business units to conduct internal reviews.

“We approach this anti-monopoly investigation with a cooperative, receptive, and open mindset,” Zhang said.

Core strength

Beyond the regulatory maelstrom, Alibaba’s core businesses thrived. The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns that swept China in the first few months of 2020 boosted Alibaba’s e-commerce division, as hundreds of millions of people stayed home and ordered online instead of buying in stores.

Alibaba’s annual Singles Day shopping festival, held every November, boosted its quarterly sales, generating $74 billion in gross merchandise value, a 26% increase from Singles Day in 2019.

Revenue from Alibaba’s cloud services increased 50% year on year and turned a profit for the first time in the quarter ended Dec. 31. Revenue from Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics business, surged 51% year on year, helped by growth in cross-border retail.

Revenue from e-commerce retail in China rose 39% year on year, while Lazada, the Alibaba-owned e-commerce site that serves consumers in Southeast Asia, and Trendyol, Turkey’s largest e-commerce platform, boosted Alibaba’s international retail business; the unit’s revenue grew 37%.

“Alibaba’s core businesses continue to do well in a booming market,” Silvers says. If Alibaba’s stock takes a hit in the coming months for “noncore concerns” like the regulatory hurdles, he said, it could represent a buying opportunity for investors.

In the earnings call, Zhang called the changing regulatory landscape in China a “near-term challenge” for Alibaba and said it presents “important opportunities for reassessing and improving our business practices.”