Alibaba Okays Another $25 Billion Buyback After Sales Miss

(Bloomberg) — Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. green-lit another $25 billion in stock repurchases, appealing to investors worried about plateauing growth at a Chinese e-commerce pioneer struggling to fend off new rivals such as PDD Holdings Inc.

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The internet company’s board approved the expansion of an existing buyback program that was already among the country’s largest, encompassing about $9.5 billion last year alone. Its shares gained briefly by more than 5% before giving up those gains in pre-market trading in New York.

Alibaba’s action may assuage some investors nervous about the uncertainty clouding the once-dominant internet company — a barometer of Chinese demand that’s going through a complicated multi-way split intended to rejuvenate the national icon. In recent quarters, its performance has mirrored a downturn in the economy while underscoring a loss of market share to rivals such as PDD and ByteDance Ltd. It posted a lower-than-projected 5% rise in December quarter revenue to 260.3 billion yuan ($36.2 billion), well off the pace of previous years. Net income in the period fell sharply to 14.4 billion yuan.

Alibaba is trying to stage a comeback from years of brutal government punishment and strategic missteps that cost the e-commerce operator its place as leader of the country’s tech industry. Co-founder Jack Ma in November urged the company to correct its course.

Click here for a liveblog of the numbers and conference call.

Chief Executive Officer Eddie Wu and Chairman Joseph Tsai, two of Ma’s longest-standing confidantes, took the helm as former chief Daniel Zhang abruptly quit, and are now charged with effecting the multi-way split. The ultimate goal is to beat back upstarts like ByteDance’s Douyin and PDD, while charting a new course for Alibaba to become a major player in artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

That entails streamlining and big moves. Wu is promoting a younger cohort of executives to revive its core Taobao and Tmall platforms, while exploring ways to unload non-core assets and dial back Zhang’s years-long “new retail” ambition. At the same time, Alibaba must find an answer to Douyin, which has won shoppers over and grew sales faster during last year’s Singles’ Day shopping festival.

Competition “is likely to continue to center on building market share at low prices,” Kenneth Fong, head of China internet research at UBS, said before the results. “Even if macroeconomic recovery occurs, price wars between platforms are likely to continue.”

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says

Alibaba’s stronger-than-expected fiscal 3Q Taobao-Tmall Group margin, which slid 19 bps year over year vs. consensus for a drop of more than 2 percentage points, suggests the company won’t sacrifice profit as it attempts to fend off e-commerce rivals in China this year. The unit’s 3Q adjusted Ebita exceeded estimates by 2% even after a 3% revenue miss.

– Catherine Lim and Trini Tan, analysts

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Alibaba is also keen to shore up its foothold in overseas markets. Units such as Lazada and Aliexpress underpin the global e-commerce operation, now among its fastest-growing divisions despite up-and-comers such as PDD’s Temu and Shein.

As with most major tech firms, Alibaba counts AI among its longer-term priorities. It’s developing its own ChatGPT-like services, while making multiple investments in startups such as Zhipu AI and Baichuan.

That AI effort has stuttered initially. Last year, Alibaba nixed the spinoff and IPO of its $11 billion cloud arm, surprising investors while citing US curbs that cut off access to Nvidia Corp.’s essential AI accelerator chips. It’s unclear what steps executives plan to take to rejuvenate a business that once counted among its growth engines, but has lost market share to state-owned players in recent years.

–With assistance from Vlad Savov, Sarah Zheng, Debby Wu and Peter Elstrom.

(Updates with details of the buybacks from the second paragraph)

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