Jack Ma’s Alibaba targets 30% revenue growth after first loss since 2012

Alibaba Group Holding reported a forecast-beating 64 per cent surge in quarterly revenue on May 13, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Alibaba Group Holding forecast 2022 revenue that beat estimates, signaling it's moving past a bruising antitrust investigation that dragged it into the red for the first time in nine years.

Jack Ma's flagship e-commerce firm forecast revenue for the year ending March 2022 will rise at least 30 per cent to more than 930 billion yuan (S$192 billion), beating the 923.5 billion average seen by analysts. That's a deceleration from the previous year's 41 per cent.

Sales for the three months ended March was a better-than-expected 187.4 billion yuan, but it swung to a 5.5 billion yuan net loss - its first since 2012 - after the company swallowed a US$2.8 billion (S$3.7 billion) fine for monopolistic behavior imposed by Beijing.

Executives have sought to put behind them a crackdown on Mr Ma's internet empire that's shaved US$260 billion off the Chinese internet behemoth's market value. The fine marked the conclusion of a four-month probe, but the threat of future action will likely cast a shadow over Alibaba's business for some time.

Following the fine, Alibaba joined 33 other tech firms in pledging to abide by monopoly laws and eradicate abuses like forced exclusivity agreements. The government has also pushed for greater control over the invaluable online data amassed by its internet giants that have enabled their meteoric expansion over the past decade. Antitrust watchdogs are screening its previous investments and could force a divestment if deemed in violation of regulations.

Meanwhile Alibaba could continue to benefit from the accelerated user and merchant adoption of its online grocery shopping, cloud computing and remote-work applications in the aftermath of the pandemic. Longer-term sales and profit growth could be driven by global expansion and the monetization of newer business segments such as logistics, media and entertainment.

Alibaba is keen to convey the impression that it's back to business as normal. Mr Ma was spotted this week at an annual staff and family celebration at its sprawling Hangzhou campus, where kids played in ball pits while company mascots posed for photos with employees in cosplay. But several key issues remain unresolved as China continues to rein in Alibaba and its increasingly powerful rivals from Tencent Holdings to Meituan.

Alibaba's finance affiliate - Ant Group, a major provider of financing for Alibaba's consumers - is still wrangling with regulators over a forced restructuring that could curb its lending. Beijing is debating how it will regulate control and ownership of online data, core to Alibaba's competitive advantage. And finally, the government is said to be considering whether to compel Alibaba to shed media assets that have supported its brand.

Its shares fell 3.2 per cent in Hong Kong before the results were released. The stock is down 31 per cent from its October peak, just before regulators jettisoned Ant's US$35 billion initial public offering and launched its probe into the company.

Alibaba is trying to resume business as normal just as competition ramps up in China's e-commerce market. Pinduoduo reported 788 million annual active buyers last quarter, dethroning Alibaba as China's biggest e-commerce operator by consumers for the first time ever. Scrappy upstarts like ByteDance and Kuaishou Technology are making inroads into social shopping, chipping away at the growth of its Taobao Live service. Other platforms like Meituan, Didi and Tencent Holdings-backed MissFresh have made aggressive investments into their community groceries business, leaving the Hangzhou-based Alibaba to play catch-up in the red-hot sector.

Ant Group's profit in the December quarter - the period during which authorities imposed new rules on micro-lending and scrapped the firm's initial public offering - rose to 21.8 billion yuan, up 50 per cent from 14.5 billion yuan in the previous three months. It contributed nearly 7.2 billion yuan to Alibaba's earnings.

The tally underscores the earnings powers Ant boasted before authorities demanded China's largest fintech company fold its financial business into a holding company, curtailing its growth prospects. Regulators have issued a battery of proposals that threaten to curb Ant's dominance in online payments and scale back its expansion into consumer lending and wealth management.

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