Alibaba Group Holding (NYSE:BABA) has never been Amazon.Com (NASDAQ:AMZN). It wasn’t founded to sell consumer goods. Its cloud isn’t challenging Amazon in infrastructure. And in the past six months, BABA stock has suffered a drop about two times that seen by AMZN shares.
Instead of selling raw infrastructure, Alibaba is developing software services that let companies design products for specific markets and get them through distribution channels. That’s the strategy that led them recently to buy Data Artisans, a Berlin-based software company, for $103 million. Data Artisans dominates in the development of Apache Flink, an open source data processing system.
Leveraging Cheap Tech Workers
The result of Alibaba going up the stack doesn’t just cut its retailers’ costs and make them competitive. It also supports Chinese goods exports, and raises the value of all of Alibaba’s cloud offerings, allowing it to enter western markets, starting in Europe.
The costs are higher, but so are the margins. About 40% of Alibaba’s 50,000 employees are tech workers. Thanks to the bear market in tech, and the China trade war, they can now get into this cheap.
All Eyes on Earnings
Alibaba is expected to earn $1.38 per share on revenue of $17.25 billion when it reports earnings on January 30. That would bring total revenue for the last four quarters to over $52 billion, against a market cap of $390 billion when the market opened January 11.
Like the other cloud czars, including Amazon, BABA stock has had a terrible six months, the shares dropping by about a third from a high of $206 to a low of $139 per share, closing yesterday below $150. With about $3.45 per share in earnings expected for the calendar year, that’s a price to earnings ratio of 43, against Amazon’s 92, and Alibaba is a higher-margin operator.
The China trade war, along with rhetoric from Washington and New York about the “Chinese Communists” (executive chairman Jack Ma admits he is a party member), has helped push Alibaba’s price down. But China isn’t any more communist today than many other countries. It’s a party-run dictatorship, but so are our “friends” in Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Alibaba’s home market is still growing faster than the U.S., and it has been more successful than other Chinese software companies in selling services outside its home market. Alibaba Cloud now has 55 availability zones across 19 regions , including two in the U.S.
Get It at a Discount?
If you don’t trust China and you don’t like Alibaba’s price, you can actually get it at a discount by buying Altaba (NASDAQ:AABA), the former Yahoo. Its primary asset is a holding of 383 million Alibaba shares, worth about $57 billion on the open market, but Altaba itself has a market cap of just $38 billion. Since it’s selling out of Yahoo Japan (OTCMKTS:YAHOY) it’s even more of a pure play on Alibaba stock.
My problem is this only gives you Alibaba stock second-hand (just like some of the items on AliExpress). Altaba has no income, and you’re stuck waiting for its board to monetize the stake for you. But they do have 15% of Alibaba’s common, and if Alibaba wants them out, they’ll have to pay a premium to achieve that.
The Bottom Line on BABA Stock
Alibaba today is a unique value proposition. It’s not the Chinese Amazon. It’s not even a “Cloud Czar” in the way of Amazon and Microsoft. And it’d be wrong to look at BABA stock as you would be shares of those others.
Alibaba is what it has always been, a software company dedicated to moving markets from the 19th to the 21st century. Like Amazon, it uses distribution and retailing for the financial scale needed to grow, and as a demonstration of what its cloud does. Beyond that, it’s something completely different — just like Alibaba stock.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new mystery thriller, The Reluctant Detective Finds Her Family, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in BABA, MSFT and AMZN.