In May, Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) reported what appeared to be blowout earnings. The report topped expectations by a mile, but it did nothing for Alibaba stock. BABA stock price barely advanced following the earnings release, and it is still down 9% over the last three months.
What’s going on? Surely, some of the struggles of Alibaba stock are related to the trade war. The longer it drags on, the more the Chinese economy will continue to slump. But Alibaba faces some unique issues of its own, namely that people are increasingly questioning the company’s accounting. BABA is now trying to sell more stock to the public, while its short interest has ballooned to 9% of its available shares. That’s a massive number for a company of its size.
The shorts have been encouraged by the internet posts of a person who claims to be a financial professional These posts, made under the name Deep Throat IPO, contain allegations about Alibaba’s accounting, leading many investors to conclude that BABA can’t be trusted.
Is Alibaba Actually Earning Much Money?
For last quarter, Alibaba reported a huge jump in its net income. In fact, on both a GAAP and non-GAAP basis, Alibaba crushed analysts’ average expectation. It reported non-GAAP earnings per share for the quarter of $1.28 against the consensus outlook of just 95 cents. Meanwhile, its GAAP EPS of $1.47 absolutely annihilated analyst estimates of just 51 cents per share.
What explains the huge disparity? Most of Alibaba’s reported profits for the quarter came from marking up the value of its investments rather than from its operating businesses. For the quarter, its reported net income soared 252% year-over-year to $3.5 billion. However, its actual profits from its operating business went down 5% to just $1.3 billion, though it would have posted a modest gain if it hadn’t had to pay a lawsuit settlement.
Still, its worth asking what’s going on. Alibaba reports phenomenal revenue growth rates, yet its core retail profits are essentially flat. And its much-touted cloud and digital media divisions continue to lose money. Take out the increased profits from its investments – which doesn’t mean much unless BABA can turn that paper into actual cash in the future – and BABA stock is absurdly expensive compared to its actual cash earnings.
Is Alibaba Really Bigger Than Wal-Mart And Amazon?
There’s long been a great deal of dispute over whether Alibaba and other Chinese retailers inflate their GMVs (Gross Merchandise Volume). The SEC probed Alibaba’s sales reporting a few years ago, and investors have made allegations about other Chinese firms like PinDuoDuo (NASDAQ:PDD) inflating their revenue.
In the case of Alibaba, the numbers get more and more questionable as time goes on. Alibaba claims its GMV has soared more than tenfold from 2012 to today, with that figure jumping from $80 billion then to more than $800 billion now. For comparison sake, that’s more than Walmart (NYSE:WMT) and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) handle annually combined! You might say that Alibaba’s business could be that big because China is so huge. Remember, though, that Walmart is a leading retailer in 25 countries and Amazon has a huge overseas businesses as well. It strains credibility to believe that Alibaba is larger than Walmart and Amazon put together.
There’s also the matter of how much each company generates per employee. That is a common check for fraud, and Alibaba comes out looking rather peculiar. Deep Throat IPO puts it well:
The other ratio I find fascinating is GMV per employee. Walmart’s GMV per employee is $284,000. Amazon’s is $428,000. Alibaba’s is $8,366,000 per employee. They are truly masters at doing more with less.
Is it realistic for Alibaba’s employees to be 20 times more efficient than Amazon’s? If you own BABA stock, you better hope so.
Is Ant Financial Worth Anything Close To Investors’ Expectations?
Supposedly, Alibaba’s Ant Financial, a digital payments facilitator, is worth $150 billion, which would make up around a third of the overall $400 billion market cap of Alibaba stock. In fact, Ant Financial was valued at $150 billion when it raised money last year. However, there is reason to be skeptical about that valuation. Specifically, it scrapped plans for an IPO last year, and it was supposed to launch an IPO this year, but the offering appears to be delayed again.
Meanwhile, Ant Financial, which is supposed to be such a dominant global payments player, doesn’t appear to be doing so well. Last year, Alibaba, which has a profit-sharing agreement with Ant Financial, did not receive any distributions from Ant because Ant didn’t make any profits. This past quarter, however, Alibaba earned $77 million from Ant Financial. $77 million seems like a pittance, given Ant Financial’s supposed $150 billion valuation. Perfectly normal.
What Happens If the Chinese Financial System Freezes Up?
For all of Alibaba’s purported profits, the company keeps needing more money. There’s probably good reason for that, since most of its “profits” don;t come in the form of cash while it is investing money in a nearly endless list of start-ups both in China and overseas. As mentioned above, Ant Financial did a big fundraising push last year, and now Alibaba is trying to unload a cool $20 billion of its stock in a secondary offering in Hong Kong.
All this brings up the trade war and the weakening yuan. The yuan is near seven per dollar, its lowest level in years, and pressure appears to be growing for a major devaluation of the currency. What happens to Alibaba’s ability to raise more money to keep its investing carousel spinning if China’s capital markets freeze up? Also, the valuations of all these nascent businesses Alibaba has invested in will implode if the IPO window shuts down for these sorts of firms.
The Verdict on BABA Stock
It’s been interesting watching Alibaba and JD.com (NASDAQ:JD) over the past year or two. As the Chinese economy has slowed, many of China’s retailers have seen their growth rates sharply drop. JD, for example, has gone from 50% annual growth to just 20% recently. Alibaba’s growth rate, however, appears totally unaffected by the deepening Chinese malaise. It keeps pumping out 50% annual revenue growth, rain or shine. Does Alibaba have a special sauce that keeps it immune to economic weakness?
So far, BABA stock has been a winner. But how long can it keep up? Alibaba already claims to be larger than Amazon and Walmart put together. If the numbers are real, surely BABA will run out of people to sell to fairly soon; there are, after all, limits to a company’s growth once it dominates a market. And if the numbers aren’t real…
At the time of this writing, Ian Bezek owned JD.com stock. You can reach him on Twitter at @irbezek.