Alibaba’s US$2.8 Billion Fine Isn’t its Only Problem
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Alibaba’s US$2.8 Billion Fine Isn’t its Only Problem

Chinese e-commerce company has competition hot on its heels.

By Jacky Wong
Fri, May 14, 2021 11:57amGrey Clock 2 min

Chinese regulators recently slapped a US$2.8 billion fine on Alibaba. But the company actually has a larger problem: maintaining its lead over the competition.

The Chinese e-commerce giant reported an operating loss of $1.2 billion for the quarter ending in March. The loss was mostly because Alibaba booked the $2.8 billion fine for anticompetitive behaviour in that quarter. Excluding the fine, Alibaba’s operating profit would have risen 48% from a year earlier. Regulators say the company forced merchants to sell goods exclusively on its platform instead of those of its rivals, in a practice called er xuan yi, meaning “choose one out of two.”

It was a difficult year for Alibaba regulator-wise—its finance affiliate Ant Group saw its initial public offering derailed—but it has been a great year for business. Alibaba’s e-commerce and cloud businesses benefited from the pandemic. Revenue last quarter grew 64% from a year earlier. Partly that was due to the addition of Sun Art, a supermarket chain Alibaba acquired last year, but even excluding that, its sales grew 40%.

But the company needs to invest more to fend off the competition. With the latest regulatory scrutiny, it might also need to spend more to keep merchants happy. The company’s adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, which excludes the one-off fine, grew only 18% year-over-year—implying shrinking margins. Alibaba has been putting money into food delivery and grocery e-commerce. The latter in particular faces strong competition from others as all Chinese tech giants see this as a chance to get their hands on relatively untapped rural areas. The business is unlikely to be profitable in the near future.

Apart from usual rivals JD.com and Pinduoduo, Alibaba could face competition from Tencent. Tencent’s WeChat has increasingly become a platform for shopping through its mini-programs, basically apps within the chat app. Merchants and even e-commerce platforms like JD.com can do their businesses through these mini-programs. Tencent said in January gross merchandise sales for physical goods on mini-programs last year grew 154% from a year earlier, without indicating the actual amount.

Live-streaming e-commerce is another area that is growing fast. Kuaishou and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, have seen strong growth in this area, even though they are still much smaller than Alibaba.

Alibaba has managed to come out of an eventful year in a good shape. There are, however, still plenty of challenges ahead: Both regulators and the competition are hot on its tail.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: May 14, 2021.



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Boost for World Economy as U.S., Eurozone Accelerate in Tandem

Surveys point to a fresh acceleration in the U.S., even as growth in the eurozone strengthens

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Global economic growth is becoming more broad based, with surveys indicating that business activity in both the U.S. and the eurozone gained momentum in May.

The eurozone economy contracted in the second half of 2023 following a surge in energy and food prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent rise in interest rates intended to tame that inflation.

By contrast, the U.S. economy expanded strongly over the same period, opening up an unusually wide growth gap with the eurozone. That gap narrowed as the eurozone returned to growth in the first three months of the year, while the U.S. slowed.

However, surveys released Thursday point to a fresh acceleration in the U.S., even as growth in the eurozone strengthened. That bodes well for a global economy that relied heavily on the U.S. for its dynamism in 2023.

The S&P Global Flash U.S. Composite PMI —which gauges activity in the manufacturing and services sectors—rose to 54.4 in May from 51.3 in April, marking a 25-month high and the first time since the beginning of the year that the index hasn’t slowed. A level over 50 indicates expansion in private-sector activity.

“The data put the U.S. economy back on course for another solid gross domestic product gain in the second quarter,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Eurozone business activity in turn increased for the third straight month in May, and at the fastest pace in a year, the surveys suggest. The currency area’s joint composite PMI rose to 52.3 from 51.7.

The uptick was led by powerhouse economy Germany, where continued strength in services and improvement in industry drove activity to its highest level in a year. That helped the manufacturing sector in the bloc as a whole grow closer to recovery, reaching a 15-month peak.

By contrast, surveys of purchasing managers pointed to a slowdown in the U.K. economy following a stronger-than-expected start to the year that saw it outpace the U.S. The survey was released a day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a surprise election for early July, banking on signs of an improved economic outlook to turn around a large deficit in the opinion polls.

Similar surveys pointed to a further acceleration in India’s rapidly-expanding economy, and to a rebound in Japan, where the economy contracted in the first three months of the year. In Australia, the surveys pointed to a slight slowdown in growth during May.

Businesses reported that they were raising their prices at the slowest pace since November, which should reassure the European Central Bank. However, the eurozone continued to add jobs in May, suggesting that wages might not cool as rapidly as the ECB had hoped.

The ECB released figures Thursday that showed wages negotiated by labor unions in the eurozone were 4.7% higher in the first quarter than a year earlier, a faster increase than the 4.5% recorded in the final three months of 2023

The ECB has signalled it will lower its key interest rate in early June, while the Fed is waiting for evidence that a slowdown in inflation will resume after setbacks this year.

Nevertheless, eurozone businesses and households shouldn’t bank on successive cuts to borrowing costs, ECB Vice President Luis de Guindos said. “There is a huge degree of uncertainty,” he said. “We have made no decisions on the number of interest rate cuts or on their size,” he said in an interview published Thursday. “We will see how economic data evolve.”

Continued resilience in the eurozone economy would likely make the ECB more cautious about lowering borrowing costs after its first move, economist Franziska Palmas at Capital Economics wrote in a note. “If the economy continues to hold up well, cuts further ahead may be slower than we had anticipated,” she said.

– Edward Frankl contributed to this story.

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11 ACRES ROAD, KELLYVILLE, NSW

This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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