Alibaba offers few answers as crackdown uncertainty persists

Alibaba has established a special taskforce to conduct internal reviews.
Alibaba has established a special taskforce to conduct internal reviews.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Alibaba Group Holding offered investors few clues into how the regulatory crackdown on Jack Ma's tech empire will impact its future growth after reporting a stronger-than-expected 37 per cent increase in quarterly sales.

The e-commerce giant has established a special taskforce to conduct internal reviews and is actively communicating with antitrust regulators on complying with their requirements as investigations continue, Alibaba said on Tuesday (Feb 2). It's also unable to make a complete assessment of how the ongoing "rectification" of affiliate Ant Group will affect its business, according to the statement.

The stronger-than-expected earnings may be overshadowed by an ongoing antitrust probe that has already wiped more than US$130 billion (S$173 billion) off the e-commerce giant's value since its October record. Uncertainty began in November when regulators first torpedoed Ant Group's record initial public offering, then launched their investigation into the online retailer. Alibaba's stock has dropped 13 per cent since Ant's aborted debut, the worst performance on Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index. The shares in New York fell 3.9 per cent.

"Ant Group's business prospects and IPO plans are subject to substantial uncertainties," Alibaba chief executive officer Daniel Zhang said on a conference call on Tuesday. "We will further update the market when the investigation is concluded."

Separately, Alibaba said it will kick off what could be a US$5 billion bond sale this week, picking up a plan that went quiet when its founder had been out of sight.

Alibaba's shares recouped some of their losses after Mr Ma resurfaced in public during a live-streamed video conference last month, in an apparent signal that worst-case scenarios - such as a government-led takeover or break-up of his companies - are probably now off the table. Few expect Beijing to entirely back off its campaign to more tightly regulate Ant, Alibaba and the rest of China's high-tech giants. But the stock's partial recovery suggests investors are beginning to price out the risk of a crackdown that would put the country's richest entrepreneurs and most innovative companies in serious jeopardy.

Mr Zhang spent a substantial portion of Alibaba's earnings call talking about the company's "social responsibility" in elevating small merchants and driving rural consumption, two of Xi Jinping's priorities as Beijing tries to lift the countryside from poverty.