Photo: Bertrand Guay / AFP / Getty Images
One of the world’s leading internet giants appears to be feeling the effects of China’s economic slowdown and the trade war with the United States.
The Alibaba Group, China’s largest e-commerce company, said Wednesday that revenue increased by 51% in the March quarter from the same period last year. That topped Wall Street’s expectations and represents an increase from the quarter before. But it is still the company’s second-slowest pace of revenue expansion since early 2016.
For the full year that ended March 31, revenue also grew by more than half. The company said, however, that the increase was partly the result of adding several recently acquired businesses, such as the takeout delivery service Ele.me, to its sales computations. Without those, it said, full-year sales would only have increased by 39%, the slowest growth in three years.
Alibaba, also said the number of customers on its Chinese retail marketplaces for the full year that ended in March grew to more than 650 million, an increase of over 100 million.
China’s economy has slowed since the tariff fight with the United States began last year. Diplomacy with Washington has frayed. Alibaba’s sprawling business makes it a closely watched bellwether for consumer and business sentiment in China, even if its enormous size makes finding new ways to make money difficult.
But Alibaba’s scale and breadth may also put it in a better position than many other Chinese businesses to weather the present choppiness.
With services from commerce and food delivery to payments and travel booking now under its umbrella, Alibaba has built such a vast ecosystem of interconnected products and platforms that its hold on Chinese consumers and merchants is almost unassailable, said David Dai, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in Hong Kong.
Alibaba is “overall in a much stronger position as compared to any other internet or e-commerce company in China,” Dai said.
During a conference call on Wednesday, the company’s executive vice chairman, Joseph Tsai, urged analysts to look beyond what he called “the elephant in the room”: China’s economic confrontation with the United States.
More important for Alibaba, Tsai said, was the long-term increase in consumer spending by China’s middle class. The company would also benefit, he said, if China agreed to import more American goods as part of a trade settlement, because Alibaba is already a partner to global brands that cater to China’s growing ranks of shopaholics.
“Those are the more significant drivers of our business, as opposed to quarter-to-quarter GDP or industrial production,” Tsai said.
Yet in a season of high anxiety about the trade war and the global economy, China’s entire tech sector is feeling the pressure.
Leading companies have laid off workers. Startups, including some that Alibaba has invested in, are struggling. Coders are protesting long hours and unpaid overtime — a sign, industry observers say, that the years of breakneck growth and boundless optimism for Chinese tech companies are past.
Alibaba has said that it will not lay off any employees this year. But the company has not been immune to strain. On Wednesday, Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang, tapped by Chairman Jack Ma to be Ma’s successor, said the company would continue to hold off on charging merchants more to advertise on its shopping sites, despite the harm it would cause to revenue growth.
Such ads, along with other services that help merchants reach customers, represent the biggest part of Alibaba’s sales, and nearly all of its profit. Unlike Amazon, Alibaba does not pocket proceeds from merchandise sales on its platforms. It makes money by charging third-party sellers to use its digital shelves and signboards.
Alibaba has said it will not boost ad sales until it has collected more data about whether new personalized ads in its shopping app are convincing customers to hand over more of their money.
Raymond Zhong is a New York Times writer.