Alibaba's (BABA) Secret Weapon for Future Growth

Amid challenging regulatory pressures, economic headwinds, and fierce market competition, Alibaba Group Holding Limited (BABA) has showcased a resilient performance, as evidenced by its latest quarterly results. Shares of the Chinese e-commerce giant have gained more than 7% over the past three months. Moreover, the stock is trading above its 50-day and 200-day moving averages of $76.20 and $78.79, respectively, reflecting a solid momentum.

Alibaba's diverse business portfolio continues to be a driving force behind its steady financial performance. For the fourth quarter that ended March 31, 2024, BABA’s revenue increased 7% year-over-year to $30.73 billion, beating the analysts’ estimate of $30.42 billion. The growth was driven by robust performances across its core e-commerce and cloud computing segments.

BABA’s strategic investments in Alibaba Cloud infrastructure and its domestic and international e-commerce platforms have spurred double-digit growth in key metrics such as gross merchandise value (GMV). Yet, the company’s income from operations dipped 3% from the prior-year quarter to $2.05 billion.

Navigating through cautious consumer spending in China, Alibaba has observed early signs of recovery in its primary e-commerce operations. Revenue from the Taobao and Tmall Group increased 4% year-over-year to $12.91 billion, while customer management revenue grew 5%, rebounding from a previously flat quarter. Also, revenue from the Alibaba International Digital Commerce Group (AIDC) surged 45% year-over-year to $3.80 billion.

BABA’s CEO Eddie Wu's commitment to ‘reignite’ growth through further investments is beginning to yield results, as he noted the strategies were “working and we are returning to growth.”

But What's Behind This Robust Growth?

Alibaba’s secret weapon lies in its digital technology and intelligence arm, Alibaba’s Cloud Intelligence Group, which stood as the company’s second-largest revenue generator last year. Revenue from this segment rose 3% year-over-year to $3.54 billion, driven by the double-digit growth of its public cloud business. Core offerings like elastic computing, databases, and AI products led to a notable triple-digit growth in AI-related revenue in the fourth quarter alone. This surge in demand for advanced AI solutions positions the company to capitalize on the burgeoning AI market.

To foster long-term growth and attract startups and small businesses, Alibaba aggressively slashed prices on over 100 core public cloud products (including Elastic Compute Service (ECS), Object Storage Service, and database product categories) in China. This initiative was later extended globally in April with a 23% average price reduction. Customers ordering through Alibaba’s official website can now enjoy discounts of up to 59% on computing, storage, network, database, and big data products.

“Cloud infrastructure is poised to be the key cornerstone for the future of AI, and our commitment lies in making sure that the foundation for AI development remains affordable,” said Selina Yuan, President of the International Business of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence.

Moreover, Alibaba Cloud's AI capabilities have rapidly gained traction, with over 90,000 enterprises adopting the Qwen large language model (LLM) within a year of its debut and more than 7 million downloads on open-source platforms like Github. Alibaba Cloud introduced Qwen2.5, the latest addition to its Qwen model family, to meet the growing demand for AI solutions.

Furthermore, Alibaba Cloud recently launched a service to help companies customize and scale generative AI models, from consolidating multiple models to optimizing underlying infrastructure resources. The PAI-Lingjun Intelligent Computing Service, an AI computing platform tailored for high-performance computing tasks, also expanded its reach to Singapore for the first time this year.

Also, the group's strategic focus on public cloud and operational efficiency resulted in an impressive 49% year-over-year increase in adjusted EBITDA to $848 million in fiscal year 2024. Such growth figures solidify Alibaba Cloud’s role as a crucial driver of the company's future growth.

Is Price Cuts a Strategic Initiative or a Race to the Bottom?

Alibaba’s recent move to reduce prices across its cloud services has stirred the market. Some say it's a smart move to attract more customers (especially with the growing demand for AI services), while others fear it could hurt profits in the long run.

With enterprises’ expenditure on generative AI services expected to reach $143 billion in 2027 globally, the timing of BABA's price adjustments appears strategic, positioning the company to tap into this growing market.

Meanwhile, BABA's price cuts have sparked a price war among Chinese tech giants, with Baidu Cloud and ByteDance quickly following suit with their competitive offerings. While these cuts benefit consumers, Alibaba’s footing in the global marketplace is tenuous. Despite holding over 30% of China's Infrastructure as a Service market, Alibaba still trails behind AWS in the broader Asia Pacific region. Alibaba Cloud commands only a small fraction of the global cloud computing market, where AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud dominate the landscape.

Making headway against these industry giants is not easy, especially considering their strong foothold in Western markets. While the price cuts may attract budget-conscious customers and bolster Alibaba's presence in emerging markets, success hinges on maintaining high-quality service and innovation in the long run. Only time will tell if Alibaba's gamble pays off.

Bottom Line

BABA reported a beat in revenue in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2024; however, the e-commerce giant’s earnings plunged. Despite a weak bottom line, CFO Toby Xu expressed confidence in the company's business outlook, citing early positive results from strategic investments and partnerships. Alibaba sees AI as a significant driver of innovation and value creation within its ecosystem.

During the March quarter, AI-related revenue delivered “triple-digit growth year-over-year.” The revenue was generated from foundational model companies and internet companies, as well as customers from the financial services and automotive industries.

Analysts expect BABA’s revenue for the first quarter (ending June 2024) to increase 5.1% year-over-year to $34.10 billion. However, its EPS for the ongoing quarter is expected to decline by 15.6% year-over-year to $2.03. Further, for the fiscal year 2025, Alibaba’s revenue is forecasted to reach $140.92 billion (up 8.3% year-over-year), while the consensus EPS estimate of $8.23 indicates a 4.4% decline from the prior year.

In terms of forward non-GAAP P/E, BABA is trading at 9.61x, 39.5% lower than the industry average of 15.88x. Similarly, the stock’s forward EV/EBITDA and Price/Book multiples of 5.94 and 1.31 are 39% and 45.3% lower than the industry averages of 9.73 and 2.40, respectively.

In response to its low valuation, Alibaba's management repurchased $4.8 billion worth of shares during the fourth quarter. Moreover, earlier this year, the company bolstered its share buyback program by an additional $25 billion, extending it through the end of March 2027.

In further demonstrating its commitment to returning value to shareholders, BABA approved a two-part dividend plan totaling $4 billion. This plan includes a regular cash dividend of $0.125 per ordinary share or $1 per ADS in FY24 and a one-time extraordinary cash dividend of $0.0825 per ordinary share or $0.66 per ADS. Both dividends will be paid out in U.S. dollars to holders of ordinary shares and ADS holders as of the close of business on June 13, 2024.

While the impact of price reductions on Alibaba's bottom line remains to be seen, achieving double-digit revenue growth across its specific segments amid strategic pricing adjustments underscores the company's resilience and adaptability in an ever-evolving market landscape.