Has the storm passed for Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.?
That will be the question for executives and investors as the Chinese e-commerce giant reports earnings on Thursday in the wake of a government crackdown on co-founder Jack Ma’s empire. Profit and revenue for the quarter are sure to be less consequential than any concrete evidence about whether the regulatory issues are resolved.
Alibaba has agreed to a record $2.8 billion penalty from Beijing and vowed to change certain practices deemed anti-competitive, including a requirement that merchants sell exclusively on its platforms or not at all. Executives also thanked regulators and pledged to support merchants — all in a bid to put the regulator troubles behind it.
On Monday, Alibaba held its annual staff and family event at its sprawling Hangzhou campus, where kids played in ball pits and drew doodles while the company’s animal mascots posed for photos with employees in cosplay outfits. Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang hosted a wedding ceremony for dozens of young couples, according to a corporate video. “No matter when you have good times or challenges, let’s have passion and love, and make our lives and work better,” he told them. Ma was spotted in a blue T-shirt at the festivities, according to photos online, making a rare appearance following a period of enforced hibernation during the worst of Alibaba’s troubles.
But several key issues remain unresolved. Alibaba’s finance affiliate, Ant Group Co., is still wrangling with regulators over its future. Beijing is debating how it will regulate the use of data, which is core to Alibaba’s competitive advantage. And finally, the government is considering whether to compel Alibaba to shed media assets, which have supported its brand — and Ma’s. The firm has lost roughly $260 billion in value since rising to a record in late October. Its Hong Kong shares rose as much as 4.4% Wednesday, paring losses since the fine was announced to about 1%.
For the record, the financial results are expected to be strong. Revenue for the March quarter is projected to rise 58% to 180.4 billion yuan ($28 billion) — recovering from a COVID-19 low — although net income will take a hit from the fine. Here are the key things investors will quiz management about:
Ant’s uncertain future
Alibaba owns a third of Ant, the company at the center of Beijing’s fintech crackdown. Its report card this week will provide a peek into how the affiliate performed during the three months ended December — when its record initial public offering was called off as regulatory scrutiny swung into high gear — as the fintech firm’s results lag one quarter behind Alibaba.
Just days after the antitrust watchdog handed down its fine on Alibaba, financial regulators ordered Ant to turn itself into a financial holding company that will effectively be supervised more like a bank. The company will need to open its payments app to competitors, increase oversight of how that business fuels its profitable consumer lending operations and cut the outstanding value of its money-market fund Yu’ebao.
That overhaul has already prompted some investors including Fidelity Investments and Warburg Pincus to slash their valuation estimates for Ant, which had once targeted a record $35 billion for its dual listings in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Now, the firm’s value could plummet to as low as $29 billion from $320 billion previously, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Francis Chan.
China’s crackdown on its internet behemoths extend well beyond rooting out practices like forced exclusivity agreements and predatory pricing. Attempts to loosen the stranglehold of Alibaba and its peers over the vast reams of data they’ve accumulated may have even more far-reaching implications and the government is said to be exploring a number of models and actions to force the corporations into opening up their data hoards.
Beijing is pouring money into digital infrastructure, drafting new laws on data usage and building new data centers around the country with the goal of positioning China as a leader in transforming the world economy over the next few decades. Xi Jinping declared his intention in March to go after “platform” companies that amass data to refine their services and create better products that allowed them to create natural monopolies that squeeze out smaller competitors.
Media and deals
Like other Chinese tech giants, Ma’s firm has previously carried out a series of mega-mergers and acquisitions through a so-called Variable Interest Entity Structure, which operated on shaky legal grounds. That practice has now come under scrutiny from the State Administration for Market Regulation, which began reviewing years-old deals. Since December, it’s issued a series of fines to firms for not seeking antitrust clearance, a move that may chill future dealmaking and hamper Alibaba’s ability to gobble up promising startups or simply buy out competitors that threaten its dominance.
Alibaba was ordered in December to pay 500,000 yuan in December for a 2017 deal involving its stake in department store operator Intime Retail Group Co. Other such deals may also come under the spotlight, including its takeover of food-delivery service Ele.me and investment in hypermart operator Sun Art Retail Group Ltd. In the worst-case scenario, Alibaba could be forced to unwind those investments, if they’re found to have violated anti-monopoly laws.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government wants Alibaba to sell some of its media assets, including the South China Morning Post, because of growing concerns about the technology giant’s influence over public opinion in the country, a person familiar with the matter has said. The company has a major stake in the Twitter-like Weibo and owns Youku, one of China’s biggest streaming services, as well as the SCMP, the leading English-language newspaper in Hong Kong.
For Alibaba, the $2.8 billion fine was less severe than many feared and helps lift a cloud of uncertainty hanging over Ma’s empire. Following the fine, Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai told investors the company was “happy to get the matter behind us,” and that it’s unaware of any other probes into its businesses.
Now, the attentions of Beijing appear to be turning to its rivals. Days after bringing the Hangzhou-based giant to heel, the antitrust watchdog summoned 34 of the country’s most influential tech firms and ordered them to learn from Alibaba’s example. They were told to pledge compliance with regulations and given one month to rectify their business practices, a deadline that expires this week.
Food delivery behemoth Meituan has been the most visible target. Authorities announced in April they were beginning a probe into for alleged abuses like forced exclusivity, the same charges leveled against Ma’s firm. The food delivery firm and fast-growing Pinduoduo Inc., which recently over took Alibaba in annual users for the first time, were also criticized by the Shanghai Consumers Council this week for hurting consumer rights.
Meanwhile, Beijing is preparing to slap a fine of at least $1.6 billion on Tencent Holdings Ltd., Reuters has reported, adding that its music streaming business is under particular scrutiny. Financial regulators also see Asia’s largest company as deserving increased supervision after the clamp down on Ant, people with knowledge of their thinking told Bloomberg in March.
“The fine on Alibaba — although a record high — is manageable for the company and demonstrates that Beijing seeks change and not disruption, in our view,” UBS Global Wealth Management Chief Investment Office said in its May report. “It also gives a glimpse into what other firms under the regulatory microscope can expect in terms of penalty amount and restructuring changes.”
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