Alibaba Profits Trimmed in First Quarter Following Regulatory Crackdown

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba should be well positioned to take advantage of the early recovery of China’s economy. But its results for the three months to June, published on Tuesday, did not show the full extent of that potential.

Net income attributable to shareholders was down by 5% at $6.99 billion using U.S. accounting metrics. Using the non-GAAP measures that the company prefers, net profits edged ahead by 10% to $6.73 billion.

The apparent standstill occurred despite revenues excluding those from acquisitions growing by 22% to $29.0 billion and subscriber numbers growing by 45 million.

“We are investing our excess profits and additional capital to support our merchants and invest in strategic areas to better serve customers and penetrate into new addressable markets.” said Maggie Wu, chief financial officer of Alibaba Group. The group also announced that it is expanding its share repurchase program for $10 billion to $15 billion per year. That is usually a sign of confidence by management.

It remains unclear to what extent the twin moves – increased investment and share buybacks – are tactical maneuvers intended to avoid lurid headlines and further regulatory attention only months after Alibaba was hit by a record fine of $2.8 billion.

China’s regulatory crackdown on the sector over the past nine months has badly rattled investors, wiping more than $200 billion from the value of the leading companies. Companies have been left second guessing where they are next likely to be crimped.

Regulators have cracked down on tech companies through: restrictions on their mergers and acquisitions activity; fines for their data handling and anti-competitive behavior; through the threat of new regulations in financial technology, online education and gaming; and pressure on individual high-profile executives, including Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma.

This comes at a time when the Chinese economy and especially its digital economy recovered from the coronavirus pandemic far faster than countries in the west.

Alibaba’s chairman and CEO Daniel Zhang was recently able to boast: “as of the end of March 2021, global annual active consumers across the Alibaba ecosystem reached 1.13 billion, surpassing the historic one billion consumer milestone.”

The group has been able to expand abroad, especially within Asia. It now counts 240 million active consumers overseas. These include Lazada in Southeast Asia, AliExpress in Europe and investee company Trendyol in Turkey.

Over the past year, consumers in China and overseas collectively contributed a combined gross merchandize value (GMV) of more than $1,239 trillion. Annual average GMV per consumer on Alibaba’s China retail marketplaces exceeded $1,404 (RMB9,200.)

Alibaba says it is learning lessons from the administrative punishments it has been hit with.

“We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. This experience has made us more thoughtful about the responsibilities of a platform company like Alibaba, which aspires to be the infrastructure of the digital economy, and how we engage in constructive relationships with partners and other stakeholders across the community and contribute to society. Internet platform businesses inherently share common characteristics with society,” said Zhang in his recent letter.

“We need to give more thought towards the positive value being created for society; addressing challenges related to essential technology; supporting the development of rural revitalization; becoming more environmentally friendly and sustainable.”

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