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What's it going to be, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) ? In or out?
The online giant is cashing out of its roughly $150 million direct stake in Alibaba.com, China's leading business-to-business e-commerce site. The moves comes just a few weeks after Yahoo! reportedly spent about half as much to buy an Arabian online community. Maybe the opening weekend of NFL action has Yahoo! feeling like a trigger-happy fantasy football league owner, always looking to trade players.
The important distinction here is that Yahoo! still owns a sizeable stake in Alibaba Group, the parent company of Alibaba.com. In other words, it may no longer have a direct investment in the publicly traded Alibaba.com, but it certainly has a vested interest in its performance.
Unlike Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , Yahoo!'s road to Asian expansion has been to team up with hometown heroes. It is partners with Softbank in Japan and Alibaba in China. Yahoo! also had a small stake in Gmarket before eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) acquired the South Korean marketplace this year.
The "hands off" approach -- in China, at least -- has served Yahoo! well. It has been dicey for Western companies to go in alone. As big as Google may be in most of the world, it's a bit player when it comes to search in China. Baidu.com (Nasdaq: BIDU ) is the undisputed champ. Activision Blizzard (Nasdaq: ATVI ) may be the world's leading software company, fueled by the World of Warcraft, but it's smart enough to turn to a Chinese online gaming specialist -- NetEase.com (Nasdaq: NTES ) -- to run the show in the world's most populous nation.
Yahoo! has billions in the bank already, so cashing out isn't a desperate move. It has to be a tactical decision. The company is unlikely to roll out an Alibaba.com clone in China, but maybe it has grander business-to-business ambitions elsewhere.
It's hard to second-guess Yahoo!'s motives abroad. It may have slipped in prestige domestically, but it has been savvy enough to partner with Softbank, Alibaba Group, and Gmarket when it wanted some part of foreign markets.
Yahoo! is either about to go on a healthy shopping spree, launch a major share repurchase initiative, or expand abroad. All three options are commendable at this point. Let's hope there isn't a fourth option.
The world according to Yahoo!: