Alibaba Group Holding has lost more than half its market value in the year since finance arm Ant Group’s listing was postponed under pressure from Chinese regulators, sapping the momentum of China’s top e-commerce company.
Alibaba’s market capitalization topped out at 6.6 trillion Hong Kong dollars ($846 billion at current rates) at the end of October 2020 but has since slumped to about HK$2.8 trillion, or $358 billion. The company is also listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Ant Group’s valuation has sunk below $200 billion from over $300 billion a year ago, according to one estimate.
An earnings call this month illustrates the bearish turn. CEO Daniel Zhang and other executives were peppered with tough questions from analysts about last quarter’s lackluster results. Asked when new operations are likely to turn a profit and whether weak group profit owed to macroeconomic factors, management gave few clear-cut answers.
Chief Financial Officer Maggie Wu provided perhaps the biggest surprise, saying revenue growth is projected to slow to 11%-16% in the second half of this fiscal year, down from 41% for all of the previous fiscal year. The loss of steam would put overall revenue growth for the current year at a record low of 20%-23%.
Alibaba rarely issues earnings projections. The unusual disclosure seemed intended to head off further damage to Alibaba’s stock price after an already rough year.
Around this time in 2020, market expectations for the company were higher than ever thanks to anticipation for the then-upcoming initial public offering by Ant Group, as well as cooped-up consumers driving demand for online shopping.
A year later, the company’s star has waned. In the earnings call, Alibaba touted its record results for Singles Day, the year’s biggest shopping event in China, reporting 540.3 billion yuan ($84.5 billion) in gross merchandise volume for the event that ended Nov. 11. But gains owed more to the fact that the sale went on much longer this year than in 2020.
A 17% year-on-year drop in operating profit for Alibaba’s commerce segment last quarter shows weakness in its core e-commerce business.
The company’s leading position in the industry has put it in the crosshairs of regulators, giving competitors an opening to exploit.
No. 2 Chinese e-commerce company JD.com reported an 18% rise in operating profit for its retail segment last quarter. Chinese authorities found in April that Alibaba violated antitrust law by pressuring merchants on its platform not to do business with rivals — a stumble that JD.com capitalized on to bring more manufacturers into its orbit.
The differing fortunes of the two companies were reflected in their stock prices the day after both released earnings. While Alibaba tumbled more than 10% in Hong Kong on Nov. 19, JD.com rallied over 9%. JD.com is also listed in New York.
Trouble is brewing for Alibaba outside e-commerce as well. Pinduoduo, now China’s No. 3 online retailer, and TikTok owner ByteDance are both jumping into mobile payment services, challenging the Alibaba-Tencent Holdings duopoly and posing a risk to one of Alibaba’s main profit sources.
Another potential pitfall involves live streaming influencers who promote products from Alibaba’s online marketplace.
Not long after Singles Day, where live streamers played a big role, two big-name influencers on Alibaba’s platform were accused last week of tax evasion. The pair, who boast a combined 25 million followers on Weibo, together face more than $14 million in fines.
One of the two — Zhu Chenhui, who goes by Xueli Cherie online — sold nearly 4 billion yuan in products on Alibaba’s platform last year. Zhu issued an apology and said she would take a break from streaming. The scandal could destroy her prospects in a field where popularity is crucial.
Livestreaming is lucrative both for influencers and for Alibaba. But long-standing tax-related practices in the industry are drawing regulatory scrutiny.
“There could be more allegations of tax evasion in the future,” said a source familiar with the situation.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” push could create an even tougher regulatory environment for Alibaba, which has been under fire for what critics consider excessive profits.
This article was first published in Nikkei Asia.