Cash-rich Alibaba to increase its investments

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2009, 12:00am

Mainland e-commerce giant, supported by a 6.9 billion yuan (HK$7.84 billion) war chest and a fast-growing base of paying subscribers, will step up investments this year amid signs of an early economic recovery and may consider issuing a dividend to shareholders.

Chairman Jack Ma Yun set that direction at the Hong Kong-listed company's annual general meeting yesterday, prompting its share price to rise as much as 15.4 per cent to HK$11.82 - close to its peak of HK$11.98 on June 23 last year. The stock closed at HK$11.74, up 14.65 per cent.

'We are always looking for acquisition opportunities, so we've conserved cash for potential investment if a suitable candidate comes along,' Mr Ma said.

'The board of directors regularly reviews our dividend policy and it may consider issuing dividends in the future.'

The business-to-business provider has taken in stride its 15.7 per cent year-on-year drop in first-quarter net profit as part of efforts to spend more on supporting its growing user base and on further improving its services through strategic acquisitions and technology innovation.

Alibaba added 49,544 paid members in the first quarter.

Mr Ma said the business model of Alibaba, which has no debt, remained misunderstood by market analysts, whom he roundly criticised for not talking to the small entrepreneurs the company helps.

'I don't really put much value on what they write,' he said.

Still, a report from Citigroup, which upgraded Alibaba to 'buy' from 'sell' and set a target share price of HK$14, praised the firm's business transformation - which included charging lower fees - as 'well ahead of schedule'. As a result of that change, Citigroup analysts said Alibaba had grown its premium-priced Gold Supplier members from an earlier announced goal of as much as 80,000 in three years to 55,810 as of March 31.

Alibaba chief executive David Wei Zhe said: 'We can see farther now and we have confidence in China's economy.'

Morgan Stanley analysts said signs of a recovery on the mainland came from a 39 per cent month-on-month jump in export sales in March, reversing a fall that started in September, and a steady climb in new export orders over the last five months. 'We consider Alibaba well-positioned for such a potential recovery,' Morgan Stanley analysts said, noting the sharp rise in customers.