Jack Ma isn’t worried.
While a looming lawsuit, recent regulatory kerfuffle and lower-than-expected third-quarter earnings have many people wondering whether some of the shine has come off China’s e-commerce golden child Alibaba, its founder and chief executive officer remains upbeat. This, despite the fact that last week the company saw its market capitalization dive by $25 billion in a single day when third-quarter earnings fell short of Wall Street estimates. Revenue at the world’s largest e-commerce company rose 40 percent to $4.22 billion in the December quarter, short of the average estimate of $4.45 billion from analysts polled by Reuters.
To Ma, things like the lawsuit, filed in New York, present an opportunity to let the West better understand Alibaba’s business — and China.
“We need to face it. We welcome it. It’s not a bad thing. This is an opportunity to show the West how Alibaba and China work,” he said in a talk in Hong Kong on Monday, adding that the Web giant’s legal team can handle it.
The 23-page complaint that was filed in Manhattan federal court Friday claimed Alibaba had violated securities laws by not raising regulatory concerns flagged in a July meeting that company officials had with Chinese regulatory authorities. The suit was filed against the company and named some officers as codefendants, and came a day after Alibaba was slammed by Chinese regulators in a “White Paper” released by the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (though the paper has since been removed from the SAIC’s Web site). The central government in Beijing had revealed in November a renewed focus on fighting intellectual property rights violations and counterfeit goods, and recent actions undertaken by SAIC show the regulator’s desire to follow through on that promise.
The lawsuit filed in New York stemmed from the SAIC white paper and charged that defendants “issued false and misleading statements regarding the soundness of the company’s business operations, the strength of its financial prospects and concealing substantial ongoing regulatory scrutiny.”
The complaint further alleged that “regulators had then brought to Alibaba’s attention a variety of highly dubious — even illegal — business practices that the SAIC advised Alibaba it was then actively clamping down on and which threatened the core of Alibaba’s business.”
The legal document listed some of those alleged business practices as including the “rampant sale of counterfeit goods” by vendors on Alibaba’s third-party marketplace platform; the sale of restricted weapons and other forbidden items; that Alibaba staffers “had taken bribes from merchants and others” seeking to help boost their search rankings, and that Alibaba ignored the practice by some vendors of faking transactions to make their sale volumes appear higher.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of shareholders who bought Alibaba stock between Oct. 21, 2014 and Jan. 28, 2015, is seeking class-action status.
A Beijing-based research analyst, who works with a market research firm focused on the Chinese Internet and who requested anonymity, told WWD he believed the lawsuit is a swipe at the company’s management structure. This structure, which gives minority shareholders control over the company’s key assets, and limited recourse to unhappy shareholders, was flagged as a potential problem prior to Alibaba’s blockbuster initial public offering in September.
“The point of this lawsuit is to target Alibaba’s management and stockholder structure, which is something Alibaba needs to deal with,” he said. “I don’t think this kind of lawsuit can damage Alibaba because every part of the company gives real support to their stock price and profitability.”
Indeed, Alibaba’s shares shrugged off the suit, rising 1.2 percent on Monday to close at $90.13 in Big Board trading.
Still, a number of analysts have lowered price targets on Alibaba in the wake of the company’s trifecta of bad news last week, though those keeping a close eye on the still extremely robust Chinese e-commerce sector remain positive about the company’s long-term prospects.
“Monetization was weaker than expected, but we continue to see increasing platform value for merchants from Alibaba longer-term and increasing monetization longer-term,” Pacific Crest analyst Cheng Cheng wrote in a note following the earnings report, which showed gross merchandise volume increase almost 49 percent, to more than $125 billion, and a 95 percent year-over-year rise in monthly active users to 265 million in 2014.
Of particular concern for many analysts was the growing influence of mobile, as Alibaba ended 2014 with 265 million mobile users, up 22 percent from the previous quarter. Alibaba platforms, such as consumer-to-consumer e-commerce site Taobao, make most of their revenue from advertising and marketing, but charge less for these services on mobile.
Despite this downward pressure on monetization stemming from the growth of mobile, several analysts pointed to this sector’s growth as a positive marker for Alibaba’s future. The company’s mobile revenue rose 448 percent year-over-year to $1.04 billion.
J.P. Morgan analyst Doug Anmuth compared Alibaba’s situation with that experienced by Baidu — China’s most-used search engine — when it was making the transition to a more predominantly mobile-based business.
“We expect Alibaba’s ads monetization to follow the trajectory of Baidu in their later mobile monetization stage to enjoy robust revenue growth driven by paid clicks and pricing,” Anmuth wrote.
Another concern for Alibaba is the more general slowdown of China’s economy and corresponding slowdown in consumption.
According to Torsten Stocker, a partner at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, Alibaba’s increasing international profile makes it a target for fears about the Chinese economy at large.
“Before the IPO they were well known in China, but they had a much less public profile. Now there are high expectations. They are a China consumer bellwether, so a lot of things people hear about the slowdown in China gets transferred to Alibaba,” he said, adding that it would be difficult to see recent developments threaten the company’s position as a dominant force in China’s e-commerce sector and beyond, as the company diversifies its offerings and expands internationally.
Yet it’s not surprising that Alibaba would receive special attention from Chinese regulators, according to digital strategy expert Andrea Fenn, from Mainland China digital consulting agency Fireworks, who describes the company’s position in China as “not just a company, but the company.”
A bigger problem for Alibaba, Fenn said, will be the demands of international regulators and investors, who might not be used to the way business is done — by Alibaba and everyone else — in China. That seemed to be Ma’s point in his speech in Hong Kong.
“The way that business is conducted in China, it’s all about guanxi, or relationships with people. Of course, there’s a lot of practices any regulatory body outside of China would think unusual,” he said. “Alibaba will continue to be the main, if not the only, credible player in Chinese e-commerce at every level. It’s a very Chinese company, but if they want to expand into the rest of the world over the next few years, they will have to internationalize their business practices.”
Alibaba’s dominant position in China is perhaps the reason Ma stayed mostly upbeat during his talk on Monday. “Doing business anywhere you have to talk, communicate, listen, change and push,” Ma said about dealing with regulators. “We’re looking to see how we can communicate to the rest of the world. We don’t want to be misunderstood by the rest of the world that we are not transparent or that Taobao is a platform for selling fake products,” he continued.
Ma also expressed concern about China’s reputation.
“We want this company to represent China and the Chinese Internet. We are not frustrated about regulators. We are frustrated about how we can prove that today in China, we can have a good company that is as transparent and [with the same] values [as] any great Internet company in the world,” he said in English.
He was speaking to the Hong Kong public in a mostly lighthearted event called “An Evening With Jack Ma,” offering advice on entrepreneurship and encouraging others not to give up, to seize opportunities and to have confidence in themselves. The talk was free and open to the public and had been advertised in local papers for weeks.
Ma said there are no firm plans to take Ant Financial, the company’s financial unit, public in the near future. Ant Financial is “still a baby,” he said.
Alibaba on Monday unveiled a $129 million foundation to help young Hong Kong entrepreneurs who want to start businesses on the e-commerce giant’s online marketplaces. The foundation will provide financial capital, technical assistance, and training to eligible vendors in Hong Kong who want to sell products to customers in Mainland China.
Ma said the foundation was not politically driven, but that he “believed a company this size should have a responsibility to help young people.”
Asked if the foundation would consider young people who participated in recent pro-democracy protests, Ma said, “Why not?” But he then noted that if applicants were barred from entering China, then it would be difficult to do business in the country.