China’s Alibaba has a $43b cash dilemma after Hong Kong share sale

People walk by the Alibaba Group logo. Photo: Bloomberg

After its $11.2 billion Hong Kong share sale, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. will be sitting on $43 billion in cash. That sounds like a great problem to have. Only one publicly listed, non-financial company has more: Apple Inc., at $49 billion.

Then you realize that management literally has more money than it knows what to do with. Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang and Maggie Wu, the chief financial officer, have three choices:

  • Do nothing. Just sit on that cash in a low-interest-rate world.
  • Spend it. On acquisitions and marketing; historically, this has depressed margins.
  • Give it back. Dividends, maybe, but more likely, buybacks.

Let’s go through them.

Sitting on that cash is really the easiest, most unimaginative thing to do. But no one says they can’t.

Spending it is definitely in the cards. Alibaba said in its prospectus that it plans to use the proceeds for “driving user growth and engagement, empowering businesses to facilitate digital transformation and improve operational efficiency, and continuing to innovate.”

That first point, driving growth, is really just banker-babble for marketing and acquisitions. In the past few years, Alibaba has laid out money for food delivery (Ele.me), groceries (Freshippo), logistics (Cainiao) and others. It’s also spent significantly to battle new rivals like Meituan Dianping and Pinduoduo Inc. This expenditure has been a major reason why top-line growth has stayed so strong. If not for these new revenue streams, Alibaba’s 40% growth last quarter would have been closer to 30%.

That “digital transformation” it talks about includes helping grocery stores getting into delivery (Taoxianda) and building out its still-unprofitable cloud business. Meanwhile, “continuing to innovate” means whatever you want it to mean.

All these initiatives, while strategic and logical, have had the effect of cutting its operating margin in half over the past five years. It’s highly likely that if Alibaba continues spending at this pace, it would do so on less-lucrative businesses that could take even longer to prove profitable.

Which leaves the final option. Return the money.

Pause for a moment to appreciate the irony of a company selling  $11 billion of shares to then turn around and buy back shares. Yet Alibaba will be listed on two major bourses — Hong Kong and New York. By using the Hong Kong money to cut the New York float, Alibaba can start to shift its investor base closer to home in China, which was a key purpose of this offering.

It may sound ridiculous that a company which has climbed 22% over the past year, trades at around 24 times estimated earnings, has a return on capital of 19.7%, and return on equity of 29.8% should consider spending money to prop up its stock. Yet there are two things to consider: Its shares have moved sideways over the past two years, and there’s precedent for solid companies to do this.

At the time that Apple announced an additional $100 billion buyback in 2018 (on top of more than $200 billion it had already bought in the prior six years), its return on capital was around 21.3% and return on equity around 36%. Its price-earnings of almost 18 times was near historic highs and shares had climbed 23% over the prior 12 months. A year later, it added another $75 billion to the buyback program, despite a further 21% advance in its shares and a widening of those return metrics. (To be sure, much of Apple’s rise has been due to buybacks).

Buybacks can sometimes be seen as a way for troubled companies to prop up their share price, like Baidu Inc., which has dropped 38% in the past 12 months amid falling revenue and profits. Yet plenty of solid companies with great financials do the same, especially when there’s a dearth of better places to put the money. This would signal to Alibaba’s new Hong Kong investors that it’s willing to back them up, and has a war chest to do so.

Sure, Alibaba doesn’t need buybacks. But it doesn’t need $43 billion in cash, either.

Bloomberg 

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
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Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.