Alibaba's Jack Ma tries to quell investor doubts about growth

Shareholders shouldn't overreact to the decelerating economy in China, Mr Ma wrote in a letter.
Shareholders shouldn't overreact to the decelerating economy in China, Mr Ma wrote in a letter. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Chairman Jack Ma urged shareholders Thursday to focus on the company's prospects beyond e-commerce as the billionaire tries to reassure investors who've watched its market value plummet by a third this year.

Shareholders shouldn't overreact to the decelerating economy in China, Ma wrote in a letter that is part of an online presentation. The e-commerce business is a "fraction" of Alibaba's long-term strategy, and the company shouldn't be judged solely on transaction volumes, he said. Chinese consumption should remain healthy because of the country's high savings rate, he added.

"Recently, signals of China's economic slowdown have triggered widespread concern and, I believe, overreaction around the world," Mr Ma said in his letter. "I do not agree with the notion that consumption will decline as economic growth slows. It is inaccurate to think that the slowdown of the Chinese economy means that Chinese people are unwilling to spend."

The letter echoed comments made by Alibaba executives during past events, including an interview Mr Ma gave at Stanford University in September. Alibaba's market capitalization has declined by more than US$120 billion (S$169 bilion) from its peak, with China's economy heading for its slowest pace of growth since 1990.

Mr Ma is known for being blunt with investors. In a founder's letter accompanying Alibaba's 2014 IPO filing, he said explicitly that shareholders would be a third priority - after customers and employees.

Alibaba reports fiscal second-quarter earnings next month, with revenue expected to climb 27 percent according to analysts. That comes after the company posted its slowest pace of sales growth in at least three years and Vice President Jane Penner told an investor conference last month that gross merchandise value for the second quarter may come in lower than the company forecast.

"Our key priorities for the next decade will be globalization, development of the rural economy and big data," Mr Ma wrote. "At this historic time, Alibaba Group must embrace change, invest in change and drive change."

Hangzhou-based Alibaba is trying to push beyond China and e-commerce, an effort that has led to $15 billion in deals. Ma wants the company to evolve into content like movies and sports, establish widespread payment systems and promote technology like its own operating system and cloud computing services.

"Our future is the infrastructure of commerce," he said.

China's second-richest person is also counting on new investments to help connect information on the Web to consumers in the real world. The idea, known in the technology industry as O2O or online-to-offline, is to let people tap their smartphones to get almost anything they want, from groceries or dinner to a TV or a car wash.

As part of the strategy, Alibaba has invested in a department-store chain, electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group Co. and the ride-hailing service Didi Kuaidi.

"Our strategy is long-term, so although the above new platforms we are building are still in progress and have yet to yield substantial revenue, their prospects are exciting and we are making headway," Mr Ma said in his letter.

Complaints about counterfeits on its websites have also contributed to its share slump. Alibaba came under fire this week after the American Apparel and Footwear Association requested that the company's Taobao Marketplace be put back on a U.S. government "Notorious Market" list that shames intellectual property rights violations.

Alibaba is open to discussions with the association, it said Tuesday.