Update May 31. Near the end of Casablanca, Vichy French Captain Louis Renault shuts down Rick’s Cafe saying, “I’m shocked, shocked, to discover gambling is going on in here.” At that point one of Rick’s employees steps up to the captain and, handing him a bundle of cash says, “Your winnings, captain.”
I’ve got much the same attitude of cynicism towards the recent news that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Alibaba’s (BABA) accounting practices. Let me be clear, I don’t think it’s okay that Alibaba cooks its books, double-counts revenue that it sends to Alibaba controlled companies, or spins off some of the most interesting parts of Alibaba (such as Ant Financial Services Group) to officers and friends.
But you can’t tell me that you didn’t know this is how Alibaba–and many other Chinese companies–does business. If you own Alibaba, as I do in my Jubak’s Picks portfolio, you own it despite these practices.
But shocked? I don’t think so.
The news, released on May 26, that the SEC was investigating Alibaba’s account took the stock down about 7% to $75.59. Shares have since rebounded to $82 at the close of New York markets today (before news that Japan’s Softbank Group (SFTBY), another Jubak’s Picks, would be selling $7.9 billion in shares to reduce its own debt took Alibaba down 2.62% to $79.85.)
U.S. regulators are investigating Alibaba’s accounting practices. At issue is the way that it accounts for revenue at logistics company Cainiao Network, which is 47% owned by Alibaba. Essentially the issue is what Alibaba pays Cainiao for its shipping services, whether transactions with Cainiao can be treated as arms-length dealings, and whether Alibaba is using Cainiao to inflate Alibaba’s results for big shopping events such as the annual Singles’ Day.
I think that in all likelihood Alibaba has violated SEC rues in all of those areas.
The question, though, is whether it matters to investors in the short run. In March Cainiao, with all its faults and baggage, raised $1.53 billion in its first round from investors that include Singapore’s Temasek Holdings.
Similarly, in April Ant Financial Group raised $4.5 billion in the biggest private placement ever, setting up the company for a huge IPO.
There are real issues with Alibaba that should be determinant in a decision to invest in the stock or not. China’s economy is slowing, which means Alibaba’s growth rate is slowing. And the company will have to get more revenue growth from non-Chinese markets. Is the company and its management headed by Jack Ma good enough to make a successful go against companies such as Amazon (AMZN) on neutral ground in Europe and India? To say the jury is still out understates the risk. How will Alibaba–can Alibaba–handle the transition from its current warehouse light structure where it relies on the companies that sell through its network to fulfill orders from their own warehouses to something like the Amazon logistics model with a heavy investment in warehouses? (The issue with Cainiao that concerns me is whether that company is being used not just to inflate revenue but also to hide Alibaba’s spending on logistics infrastructure.)
In the short run Alibaba is a single stock play on sentiment and momentum in China’s shift to a consumer economy.
In the long run Alibaba will have to answer questions about whether it can profitably compete in non-Chinese markets where the playing field is level.
Which makes the investing problem figuring out when the long-run kicks in. In the short run I’m leaving my target price at $95 a share.