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Alibaba investors are so skittish they dumped $26 billion because police arrested someone named Ma. It wasn’t Jack

May 3, 2022, 6:22 AM UTC

Alibaba Group shares crashed in early trading on Tuesday after China’s state broadcaster announced the arrest of someone with the same surname as the e-commerce company’s founder.

CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, reported Tuesday morning that police in Hangzhou, Alibaba’s home city, had taken “compulsory measures” against an individual with the last name Ma on April 25. The broadcaster said Ma had been apprehended on charges of using the internet to engage in activities endangering national security.  

Investors, fearing that the individual in question was Alibaba’s billionaire founder Jack Ma, quickly dumped their shares, causing the stock to crash by as much as 9.4%, erasing about $26 billion in value.

The initial CCTV report stated that the suspect’s full name had two characters. But the broadcaster later revised that report to reflect a clarification issued by Hangzhou’s police: The arrested individual’s full name has three characters.

That distinction made all the difference. The full name of Jack Ma, whose given name in Chinese is Yun, has only two characters. By noon Hong Kong time, Alibaba shares had pared losses to just 1.8%.

The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, later reported that the individual in question was a hardware research director at a Chinese tech company.

Ma, which literally means “horse,” is the 13th most common surname in China, according to a 2019 report by China’s Ministry of Public Security. Hangzhou’s population of 12 million likely includes more than 100,000 people surnamed Ma.

Yet the fact that even the possibility the arrest could be connected to Alibaba’s once-outspoken founder caused shares to tank shows that investors remain on edge about the company’s future—even as Beijing is signaling it intends to ease a two-year crackdown on the nation’s tech sector in response to concerns over slowing growth.

Shares in Alibaba are down 66% from their peak in October 2020. Investors started selling shares after Ma, addressing a high-profile conference for the nation’s most powerful bankers and financial regulators, criticized China’s policymakers for stifling innovation and growth.

Authorities responded by forcing the suspension of the IPO of Ant Group, Alibaba’s fintech affiliate. Regulators also launched an antitrust investigation into the e-commerce group, resulting in a record $2.8 billion fine for anticompetitive behavior in April 2021. 

Even longtime Alibaba investors, like Charlie Munger’s Daily Journal Corp., are trimming their holdings of Alibaba shares.

Investors also worry that China may revive the crackdown on its tech sector. In 2021, Beijing imposed regulations and fines on some of the country’s largest tech companies, in sectors including gaming, ride-hailing, education, and food delivery. China’s crackdown led some analysts to call the sector “uninvestable,” with the Hang Seng Tech Index down 57% from its February 2021 peak.

China’s leaders may be considering scaling back the crackdown as the country’s economy struggles with COVID outbreaks in Shanghai and elsewhere, according to the South China Morning Post

Ma, who stepped down as executive chairman of Alibaba in 2019, has not been seen in public since January, when he visited a primary school in Hainan as part of his philanthropic efforts, notes the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.

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