Opinion: Alibaba’s growth isn’t the recovery you were looking for

  • TECH
  • Friday, 21 Aug 2020

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s strong rebound in both revenue and profit last quarter are impressive. — Gilles Sabrie/Bloomberg

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s strong rebound in both revenue and profit last quarter are impressive. Sales climbed 34% and operating income jumped 42% after paltry results the quarter before. But investors should be aware just where those numbers are coming from before they celebrate a recovery.

While primarily an e-commerce company – accounting for half of revenue last financial year – the single-biggest contributor to growth in the June period was what the Chinese company calls "new retail”. In the backward world of online sales, this actually refers to brick-and-mortar businesses such as supermarkets. That category, lumped together as "others”, climbed 88% from a year prior.

Its actual e-commerce business expanded just 21%. The only time it’s been worse was the March quarter, when the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in growth of just 1.1%. Within that business, commissions rose 17% and advertising 23%.

Alibaba’s other major growth driver was its up-and-coming cloud division, which expanded 59%. On the surface, this is laudable; however, that business continues to bleed money with operating loss margins running at 14.4%, the same level as three months earlier. Sure, this margin has narrowed over the past year, but as yet there’s little indication that Alibaba can be expected to deliver sustained economies-of-scale as that category grows, especially in the face of stiff competition from the likes of Tencent Holdings Ltd.

Leveraging its investments in new areas such as physical retail isn’t a bad thing. It shows a pragmatic approach to investment as management seizes new opportunities for growth. Yet investors who want to cheer a recovery for China’s largest e-commerce company should keep in mind what it is they’re celebrating.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News. – Bloomberg

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