17 June 2024

Alibaba, Amid Antitrust Pressure, Is Conducting Internal Review

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Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. BABA -3.85% has set up a task force to review some of its businesses in response to an antitrust probe in China, its chief executive said Tuesday, as the threat of a regulatory overhaul looms over the Chinese e-commerce giant founded by Jack Ma.

In an investor call after releasing quarterly results, Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang reiterated that Alibaba is cooperating with regulators. Striking a conciliatory tone, he emphasized Alibaba’s important role in China’s economy, saying the company—operating two popular e-commerce platforms—is ready to take on more social responsibility as an online platform tied to the country’s economic development.

“Although the changing regulatory landscape applicable to fintech and internet platform companies presents near-term challenges to Alibaba, we regard them as important opportunities for reassessing and improving our business practices,” Mr. Zhang said.

Alibaba and its fintech-affiliate Ant Group Co. have come under scrutiny after Mr. Ma made a speech in October criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s campaign to combat financial risks as well as regulators for stifling innovation. That led Mr. Xi to personally call off Ant’s much-anticipated initial public offering.

In December, China’s top market regulator launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba over allegations that it used its dominant position to pressure merchants into selling exclusively on its own platform. That same month it also fined Alibaba, along with two other major e-commerce platforms, for product pricing that misled consumers.

Since his October comments, Mr. Ma has largely vanished from public life. He resurfaced briefly in January, appearing in a video to give a speech to a group of teachers from rural schools. While the Chinese billionaire stepped down as executive chairman of Alibaba in 2019, his appearance sent the company’s share prices up more than 8% that day.

Even as Alibaba faced regulatory scrutiny, its earnings for the fiscal third quarter ended in December exceeded analysts’ expectations. Net income attributable to ordinary shareholders was 79.43 billion yuan, equivalent to $12.28 billion, up 52% from the same period a year earlier, on strong consumer activity amid an economic rebound in China.

Sales for the quarter rose about 37% to 221.08 billion yuan, ahead of the 214.29 billion yuan analysts polled by FactSet had expected. Core commerce sales rose 38% to 195.54 billion yuan. Alibaba, running two of China’s biggest online shopping sites, is often seen as a barometer for Chinese consumer spending.

Meanwhile, Alibaba’s report showed that Ant recorded 14.5 billion yuan, equivalent to $2.24 billion, in estimated net profit in the three months to September 2020, before its blockbuster initial public offering was called off in early November. Alibaba owns a third of Ant and reports its share of profits from the owner of Alipay one quarter in arrears.

Ant earlier reported 45.6 billion yuan in revenue for the September quarter while it was preparing to go public last year, but didn’t disclose the profit figures. Chinese financial regulators recently told Ant to restructure into a financial holding company, essentially subjecting Ant’s fast-growing businesses to tighter regulations, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

Mr. Zhang said Ant is in the process of developing a rectification plan. “Ant Group’s business prospects and IPO plans are subject to substantial uncertainties. Therefore, currently we are unable to make a complete and fair assessment of the impact that these changes and uncertainties will have on Alibaba Group,” he said.

Alibaba’s business has benefited from a strong economic recovery, as China has returned to work following the Covid-19 pandemic but continued a trend of purchasing goods online. China was the only major world economy to grow last year, expanding by 2.3% after a historic contraction in the early months of the year.

However, the Hangzhou-based company has faced increasing competition from other platforms, most notably upstart Pinduoduo Inc., which caters to more price-conscious consumers.

Steven Zhu, senior analyst at research firm Pacific Epoch, said Alibaba’s growth will likely be hindered by pressure from both e-commerce rivals such as JD.com Inc. and Pinduoduo Inc., and also short-video platforms like Douyin, TikTok’s sister app in China owned by Bytedance Ltd.

“As long as you have traffic, you can do e-commerce,” Mr. Zhu said. “That will probably be a long-term trend that will curb the explosive growth from Alibaba.”

To court more customers, Alibaba has invested in offshoots of its popular Taobao shopping app, such as discount-shopping app Taobao Deals to counter Pinduoduo’s expansion in smaller markets, and the Taobao Live platform, to capitalize on sales and advertising in live streaming. It has also pushed further into the fast-growing grocery shopping and delivery market with a controlling stake in Sun Art, a major retail chain in China.

Mr. Zhang said while the company has experienced greater competition, he emphasized Alibaba’s strengths in consumer reach and seller services such as management tools. He added that while Alibaba has some exclusive arrangements with merchants, it is readily apparent that many sell their goods through other channels as well.

The company’s cloud-computing business notched its first quarter of positive adjusted earnings before interest, taxes and amortization as revenue grew 50% to 16.12 billion yuan. Revenue from its logistics business, Cainiao Network, grew 51% year over year.

Record sales from the Nov. 11 annual shopping festival, known as Singles Day, helped. Alibaba raked in the equivalent of a record $74.1 billion by the end of Nov. 11, after extending the event from one to 11 days.

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