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Alibaba Sales Growth Plumbs New Lows While Uncertainty Escalates

Zheping Huang
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Alibaba Drops After Projecting Slowing Growth in Uncertain Times

(Bloomberg) --

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. expects revenue growth to slow this year, reflecting post-Covid 19 economic uncertainty at home as well as the potential for U.S.-Chinese tensions to disrupt its business.

The e-commerce giant forecast sales growth this year of at least 27.5% to more than 650 billion yuan ($91 billion), down from 35% previously and slightly below analysts’ estimates. While it posted a better-than-expected 22% rise in March quarter revenue of 114.3 billion yuan, that marked its slowest pace of expansion on record. Alibaba’s shares slid more than 5% in New York.

Online shopping began to bounce back from March, executives said Friday. But the tepid outlook demonstrates the world’s second largest economy has yet to fully shake off Covid-19, with consumers still hesitant about spending on big-ticket items. Asia’s largest corporation is tackling also the rise of rivals such as ByteDance Ltd. and Pinduoduo Inc. And the Tmall operator is going head-to-head with Tencent Holdings Ltd. for internet leadership in everything from online media to payments and cloud computing.

Alibaba has lost more than $40 billion of market value since the coronavirus first erupted in January, and now has to grapple with not just an uncertain global economic environment but also any potential fallout from U.S.-Chinese financial tensions. On Friday, executives sought to assuage concerns about a U.S. bill that mandates much closer accounting scrutiny of U.S.-listed Chinese companies and may bar them from American bourses.

Chief Financial Officer Maggie Wu said Alibaba’s financial statements have been consistently prepared in accordance with U.S. GAAP accounting measures and were beyond reproach. “The integrity of Alibaba’s financial statements speak for itself, we have been an SEC filer since 2014 and hold ourselves to the highest standard,” she told analysts on a conference call. “We will endeavor to comply with any legislation whose aim is to protect and bring transparency to investors who buy securities on U.S. stock exchanges.”

The bigger short-term challenge is in reviving growth: Alibaba’s bread-and-butter customer management or marketing business grew just 3% in the March quarter. Much of that stems from weaker consumer sentiment during the coronavirus-stricken quarter, when total Chinese e-commerce rose just 5.9% or at less than a third of 2019’s pace, according to government data.

Rival PDD posted a revenue rise of 44% on Friday, down sharply from 91% in the previous quarter, although that still beat expectations. Its sales and marketing expenses jumped 49%.

Alibaba’s net income was 3.2 billion yuan, down 88% from a year ago when it booked an 18.7 billion yuan one-time gain on investments. In February, Alibaba declared a waiver of some service fees for merchants struggling financially during the outbreak on its main direct-to-consumer Tmall platform. In April, the company rolled out a new 10-billion-yuan subsidy program for Tmall users to buy electronics, encroaching on JD.com Inc.’s traditional turf. These initiatives may further compress margins for the June quarter.

“The challenging part is for them to achieve the same amount of growth this year,” said Steven Zhu, a Shanghai-based analyst with Pacific Epoch. “Just because they are too big, for the same amount of growth, they need to spend much more effort.”

But executives were confident in a gradual e-commerce recovery over the year. Beyond its main business, younger divisions such as its cloud computing arm should buoy its bottom line. That division’s revenue jumped 58% in the quarter.

“Despite a challenging quarter due to reduced economic activities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, we achieved our annual revenue guidance,” Wu said in a statement. “Although the pandemic negatively impacted most of our domestic core commerce businesses starting in late January, we have seen a steady recovery since March.”

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says

The company’s businesses most impacted by merchant and logistic disruptions are also its most lucrative, such as retail marketplaces Taobao and Tmall, while faster-growing segments like cloud computing and digital entertainment don’t contribute to profit. Subsidies for users and merchants will add to costs. Alibaba may provide an improved growth outlook for the June quarter given the retreat of the pandemic in China, but the recovery could be gradual as consumption sentiment remains weak.

- Vey-Sern Ling and Tiffany Tam, analysts

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