Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. forecast better-than-expected revenue and pledged to invest in new growth arenas, signaling its intention to move past a Chinese antitrust probe that triggered its first loss in nine years.

Jack Ma’s flagship e-commerce firm swung to a 5.5 billion yuan ($852 million) net loss — its first since 2012 — after the company swallowed a $2.8 billion fine for monopolistic behavior imposed by Beijing. It now intends to refocus on its business, plowing “all incremental profit” back into technology and hotly contested areas like community commerce, Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang pledged on Thursday. Its shares fell more than 6% in Hong Kong after Citigroup and CICC slashed their price targets on fears that prioritizing growth will hammer profits.

Alibaba executives have sought to put behind them a crackdown on Ma’s internet empire that’s shaved $260 billion off the Chinese internet behemoth’s market value. The penalty imposed in April marked the conclusion of a four-month probe, but uncertainty persists as Beijing continues to rein in Alibaba and increasingly powerful rivals from Tencent Holdings Ltd. to Meituan. No analyst asked directly about what’s to come in the broader clampdown Thursday, though Zhang stressed the company accepted the fine and will move forward.

“We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination,” the CEO said. “During the past fiscal year, we have gone through all kinds of challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, fierce competition as well as an anti-monopoly investigation and penalty decision by Chinese regulators. We believe the best way to overcome these challenges is to look forward and invest for the long term.”

Alibaba’s shares are down about 35% from its October peak, just before Ma’s now-infamous rant against outmoded regulations triggered a chain of events that torpedoed a $35 billion initial public offering by his Ant Group Co. and started a probe into the e-commerce giant.

“The lack of tangible evidence of material share gains on the ground, for example in community group buying, or food delivery, remains a material concern of ours for Alibaba,” Bernstein analysts led by Robin Zhu said. “We fear that until such data points materialize, Alibaba’s investments will be likened to selling the family silver.”

“There is still significant uncertainty in Alibaba,” said Andy Halliwell, an analyst at consultancy Publicis Sapient. “There is no doubt though that Alibaba have capitalized on their digital and tech strategy in light of the global pandemic, and the rebounding Chinese economy. But it remains to be seen how Jack Ma’s behavior last year will have a lasting impact on brand and investor confidence.”

Alibaba is keen to convey the impression that it’s back to business as normal. Ma was spotted this week at an annual staff and family celebration at its sprawling Hangzhou campus, where kids played in ball pits while company mascots posed for photos with employees in cosplay.

Jack Ma, billionaire founder of Alibaba Group, arrives at an event in Paris in May 2019. | REUTERS
Jack Ma, billionaire founder of Alibaba Group, arrives at an event in Paris in May 2019. | REUTERS

On Thursday, the company forecast revenue for the year ending March 2022 will rise at least 30% to more than 930 billion yuan, beating the 923.5 billion yuan average projection. That’s a deceleration from the previous year’s 41%, and comes after sales for the three months ended March came in at a better-than-expected 187.4 billion yuan.

The anticipated revenue growth, however, disappointed some analysts given the pledge to hike spending. It’s also unclear how much the increased investment, which also encompasses areas from local internet services and merchant solutions, may hurt margins. And reliable growth engines are slowing: cloud revenue grew just 37% in the March quarter after a major, unidentified customer pulled out, the slowest pace since 2014.

Zhang singled out community commerce — an area now fought over between a number of deep-pocketed rivals like JD.com Inc. and Pinduoduo Inc. — as a key avenue to reach lower-tier and rural customers. Executives said Alibaba will be disciplined in spending, without elaborating.

“Despite heady predictions, it’s likely that we’ll see an erosion of margins in part due to the investment the business is making in new business ventures,” Halliwell said.

There remain several other questions Alibaba may have to grapple with in the year ahead. The company joined 33 other tech firms in pledging to abide by monopoly laws and eradicate abuses like forced exclusivity agreements — actions with as-yet unknown ramifications for growth. More broadly, the Chinese government is debating how to exert greater control over the invaluable online data amassed by its internet giants that have enabled their meteoric expansion over the past decade.

The government is said to be considering whether to compel Alibaba to shed media assets that have supported its brand. Antitrust watchdogs are screening its previous investments and could force a divestment if deemed in violation of regulations.

Then there’s Alibaba’s finance affiliate — Ant, a major provider of financing for Alibaba’s consumers — which is still wrangling with regulators over a forced restructuring that could curb its lending. Its profit in the December quarter rose 50% to 21.8 billion yuan, though the bottom line will remain under pressure because of a requirement to cut back on loans.

Alibaba is trying to resume business as normal just as competition ramps up in China’s e-commerce market.

Pinduoduo reported 788 million annual active buyers in the December quarter, dethroning Alibaba as China’s biggest e-commerce operator by consumers for the first time ever. On Thursday, Alibaba reported its users had climbed to 811 million in China in the three months ended March.

Scrappy upstarts like ByteDance Ltd. and Kuaishou Technology are making inroads into social shopping, chipping away at the growth of its Taobao Live service. Other platforms like Meituan, Didi and Tencent Holdings-backed MissFresh have made aggressive investments into their community groceries business, leaving the Hangzhou-based Alibaba to play catch-up in the red-hot sector.

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