Yesterday before the market opened in New York China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba (BABA) reported September quarter earnings of $1.29 a share (excluding one-time items.) That was 26 cents a share better than Wall Street projections. Revenue climbed 61% to $8.63 billion for the quarter, again ahead of projections (at $7.86 billion.)
I think it’s safe to conclude from the report that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the company’s core business in China. Revenue from core e-commerce grew 63% year over year. Annual active consumers on the company’s retail marketplace reached 488 million, an increase of 22 million from the 12-month period ended June 30, 2017. Mobile Monthly Active Users (MAUs and not to be confused with MAOs) hit 549 million in September 2017 for an increase of 20 million above June 2017. Non-GAAP free cash flow during the quarter climbed to $3.4 billion.
The company’s cloud computing business added enough scale so that I think it deserves classification as a core business. Revenue from cloud computing grew 99% year over year to $447 million.
The problem, to the degree that there was one with the quarter, is that the company’s new businesses don’t show equivalent rates of growth to those in the core business. For example, revenue from digital media and entertainment grew to $721 million, but that was growth of only 33% year over year. (Yes, with Alibaba I think it’s legitimate to label growth of 33% “only.) Revenue from what the company classifies as innovation initiatives grew by 27% year over year to $134 million.
Granted that these are new businesses that are still in the investment stage, but I still have to say that grow of only 33% or 27% is disappointing, especially considering that growth is taking off from such relatively low base numbers.
This is the second consecutive quarter where growth in the digital media and entertainment business grew at a rate in the 30%s. A few more of these and we’re looking at a worrying trend.
Innovation initiatives, which include long-term projects such as car-navigation systems, will inarguably take longer to bear fruit, but how long? We know from the track record of U.S. companies such as Alphabet (GOOG), Tesla (TSLA), and Amazon (AMZN) how easy it is for a fast-growing Internet giant to spin off businesses in all directions and how hard it is to impose ROI discipline on those projects. (Think of how much harder it might be in the Chinese context where shareholders can put even less pressure on company management than in the United States–even considering the plague of multiple classes of shares with very different voting rights at some of these U.S.companies.)
Alibaba’s efforts to break into new e-commerce geographies such as Southeast Asia will require large and long-term injections of investment cash. Even a company like Alibaba can’t do everything.
Which is why it’s worth keeping on eye on spending in digital media and innovation initiatives.
Alibaba is a member of both my Jubak Picks 12 to 18 month and 50 Stocks long term portfolios.