Alibaba Group Holding, China’s largest e-commerce company, is expected to shrug off concerns over the last-minute suspension of the highly anticipated listing of affiliate Ant Group with another quarter of strong earnings growth, helped by momentum from online shopping amid the coronavirus pandemic, when it reports results later on Thursday.
But analysts say strong regulatory signals from Beijing about reining in online lending could harm e-commerce transaction volumes, as well as Alibaba’s bottom line where it records profits from its one-third ownership of Ant.
Ant was expected to list in Shanghai and Hong Kong this week, but the initial public offering was unexpectedly suspended after top Ant executives and controlling shareholder Jack Ma were summoned to a meeting with Chinese regulators on Monday.
“At this moment, we didn’t see any retreat about the sales figures in China,” said Danny Law, analyst at Guotai Junan. “Quite the opposite, we see the recovery in China has been sustained.”
In the first nine months of the year, online retail transactions in China grew 9.7% from the same period a year earlier, with sales of goods rising 15.3%, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. Goods sold online now account for roughly a quarter of the nation’s total retail sales.
Alibaba’s core commerce revenue rose 34% to RMB 133 billion (USD 19.9 billion) in the quarter ended in June, and its annual active consumers reached 742 million, a net increase of 16 million from the previous quarter.
The group’s other businesses, including online streaming and entertainment platform Youku and DingTalk, which has been widely used by companies for communications, also benefited from the stay-at-home economy.
While the pace of new user acquisition could slow, existing ones are expected to continue to use Alibaba’s services, analysts say. However, the abrupt halt of the much-anticipated listing of Ant has cast a shadow over the e-commerce group’s outlook.
Shares of Alibaba closed 7.5% lower at HKD 277.20 in Hong Kong trading on Wednesday, while in New York they rose 3.6% to USD 295.71, helped by a stock market rally after the US election. In morning trading in Hong Kong on Thursday, the company’s shares gained 5.7% to reach HKD 293.
As an investor in Ant, Alibaba’s financial performance might be affected if the fintech company’s valuation declines. “We would expect a depressed valuation for Ant as additional registered capital is added,” Morningstar analyst Chelsey Tam said in a research note following Ant’s IPO suspension.
“Ant Group is part of virtually every transaction within Alibaba,” said Jeffrey Towson, an online lecturer on China’s digital sector and a private equity investor.
Ant’s flagship payment application Alipay now has more than 1 billion users globally. Alipay also has been an important portal for Alibaba to promote new businesses, such as food delivery platform Ele.me and logistics service Cainiao. It also helps to collect data for the Alibaba ecosystem from both online and offline services.
While Towson believes “delaying an IPO doesn’t change Alibaba,” he raised concerns over the potential impact on Alibaba’s businesses from the government’s tightening regulations on online lending.
Ant has grown into an important financial services provider that offers consumer and supplier credit for e-commerce. “There is an overlap of small businesses that borrow through Ant that are merchants of Alibaba’s platforms,” Morningstar analysts said in a separate note.
But lending via online platforms is coming under increasing regulatory pressure. Draft rules published by the People’s Bank of China and the banking regulator call for internet platforms to fund no less than 30% of total loans themselves, compared with Ant’s 2% now.
“Government limitations on the use of credit would impact Taobao and Tmall directly,” Towson said, referring to Alibaba’s two major online retail platforms.
He said consumer credit usually enables more purchasing, as “people buy more when they pay later.” Supplier credit also helps boost transaction volumes because merchants can buy more inventory to sell before they collect payments from customers, he added.