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Alibaba’s faded rally signals grim outlook ahead

Alibaba’s faded rally signals grim outlook ahead
The Ant Group Co mascot at the company's headquarters in Hangzhou, China, on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., which holds a 33% stake in Ant, is scheduled to report first-quarter results on Aug. 3. (Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

It took only four weeks for optimism around Alibaba Group Holding’s breakup plan to fizzle. Restoring it will likely be an uphill battle.

Alibaba’s American Depositary Receipts are now 2.3% below where they were before the e-commerce firm announced its overhaul plan last month, wiping out as much as 20% in gains. Investors had originally hoped that a split into six units would boost the empire’s value and increase chances of listing those units publicly. That would reverse woes faced after the sudden halt of Ant Group’s IPO in 2020 amid Beijing’s concerns about influence.

But as US-China geopolitical tensions flare, some are starting to backtrack on their earlier enthusiasm. Concerns about broader weakness in sentiment for Chinese equities, coupled with questions about the potential initial public offering pipeline and a lack of growth catalysts, are also weighing on the stock’s outlook.

“Whatever valuation gains from Alibaba spinning off and separately listing its business units may be tempered by the weak sentiment towards China because those IPOs will be harder to execute and valuations may be lower,” said Vey Sern Ling, managing director at Union Bancaire Privee.

Alibaba’s post-spinoff fizzle in part also reflects a broader concern about the recovery trajectory in China’s economy. As a bellwether for the nation’s consumption patterns, analysts have revised its earnings forecast down by around 5% since March, according to Bloomberg-compiled data. Among concerns are a sky-high unemployment rate and decelerating private investment.

The macro headwinds have made plans for IPO fundraising particularly difficult. Last week, the firm cut prices for its cloud services — a unit it aims to make public. The move suggests the firm is willing to cede more profits this year to keep business away from rivals like Tencent Holdings. Continued share sales by SoftBank Group, an early and key investor, is also hurting prospects. 

There are some potential bright spots. Goldman Sachs Group said last week that the stock remains its top pick in China’s internet sector, citing a better product mix at its Taobao platform, artificial intelligence efforts, as well as a valuation recovery story, according to analysts including Ronald Keung. Alibaba now trades at its steepest-ever discount to net asset value, according to Goldman’s estimates.

The stock remains in the red in both Hong Kong and US year-to-date, lagging behind rival Tencent, but still outperforming its e-commerce competitor and PDD Holdings. Alibaba’s Hong Kong shares are trading at about 10 times forward one-year earnings, vs 12.3 times for and 19.3 for Tencent.

Looking forward, analysts say that stronger fundamentals including steady revenue growth will be key to a revival.

“Alibaba will likely struggle to revive its overall revenue growth with cloud alone and there is a limit to how much incremental profit you can get out of cutting costs/headcount,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Catherine Lim. “The firm needs to have a new growth catalyst for each of the other four businesses, excluding cost cutting moves, to support any premium valuation at the point of spinoff or IPO.” BM/DM


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