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Where Will Alibaba Be in 5 Years?

By Nicholas Rossolillo – Jun 25, 2020 at 6:45AM

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China’s largest tech titan still has lofty ambitions.

Alibaba (BABA -2.37%) stock is up over 140% since making its U.S. debut in late 2014. It was already a tech titan in China, playing a crucial role in the lives of many Chinese consumers and businesses. That can be seen in the fact that Alibaba reported fiscal 2015 revenue of $12.3 billion shortly after its U.S. IPO. However, the company just wrapped up fiscal 2020 (the year ended March 31, 2020) and reported $72.0 billion in revenue, a more than 480% increase over the last five years.

Alibaba is far from finished as a growth stock, although it could present a bumpy ride for U.S. shareholders. Uncertainty remains regarding U.S.-China trade relations, and the global economy is still reeling from the effects of COVID-19. The U.S. Senate also recently passed the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, which would delist foreign stocks from American exchanges unless they certify they are not owned or controlled by a foreign government and if the company hasn't allowed the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) to see their books for three consecutive years. Shareholders will want to monitor the situation.

But as for the business itself, Alibaba is on a roll. The economic shutdown in China to halt the spread of coronavirus from its epicenter in Wuhan created some headwinds, but e-commerce and related services are more important than ever before -- and Alibaba is ready to capitalize on the opportunity.

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China's largest technologist

Alibaba's e-commerce platform is far and away the leader in China, providing direct marketplace services for consumers, third-party wholesale services for retailers, and cross-border transactions into and out of China. It's more than just e-commerce, though. It also has a fast-growing cloud computing segment that, in spite of initial worry over the economic lockdown, ended up growing 58% from a year ago during the quarter ended March 31, 2020, and now makes up over 10% of total revenue. It also has a digital media and entertainment arm and a sprawling investment division (including a one-third equity stake in fintech start-up Ant Financial) that looks to support or outright purchase high-growth start-ups in China and abroad.

As with most businesses based in China, Alibaba has had plenty of criticism. Its shares give investors access to growth in the company, but voting power to influence the company lies with the executive team. Alibaba taking a one-third stake in Ant late last year was met with some skepticism as well. Ant -- parent of digital payments platform Alipay, which is closely affiliated with Alibaba itself and controlled by Alibaba founder and former chairman Jack Ma -- is foregoing payment of 37.5% of its pre-tax profits to Alibaba in exchange for the equity stake. Only time will tell which ends up being more valuable.

That's not to mention some of the aforementioned political concerns. Alibaba could be at least partially controlled by the Chinese government, which could ultimately lead to its delisting from U.S. stock exchanges (although it still trades in Hong Kong, so investors might be able to trade their stock with a broker that has access there).

But controversy aside, it's hard to ignore the largest e-commerce player in the world's largest digital economy. At the conclusion of its 2020 fiscal year, Alibaba said the value of merchandise purchased on its platform exceeded $1 trillion for the first time. Revenue for the year rose 35%, including a gain of "only" 22% in the fiscal fourth quarter during the worst of the COVID-19 lockdown. And free cash flow (revenue less cash operating and capital expenses) generated in the last year was $25.9 billion, good for an enviable profit margin of 35%.  

Where is Alibaba in five years?

It's hard to say where the stock will be in five years' time, but Alibaba the business has momentum working in its favor. The company reported serving 960 million global consumers last year but plans on reaching 1 billion Chinese consumers alone by 2024. And as originally outlined in the autumn of 2019, it forecasts facilitating consumption of 10 trillion in Chinese renminbi (currently $1.42 billion using exchange rates on June 23, 2020) on its platform. Those five-year goals really act as a guidepost for Alibaba's 15-year goal to reach 2 billion consumers and facilitate 10 million profitable businesses globally on its platform by 2036. Ambitious indeed.

Although the financial results from the last year put Alibaba in charge of roughly one-sixth of all retail in China, its home market is still a massive opportunity. Retail sales grew 8% in the country in 2019 as the middle class continues to develop, and though e-commerce is already well-entrenched (especially in the largest Chinese cities), it still only accounts for some 16% of total sales in the country. This company is thus a dual play on both the economic development of China overall and on digital commerce.

Of course, hitting its five-year and 15-year milestones will require Alibaba to continue expanding beyond its home market. And the battle for e-commerce, cloud computing, and digital payments market share is fierce. It will require the Chinese tech titan to increasingly rub elbows with some of its international peers, many of which are just as powerful and ambitious. Alibaba is well-equipped for the task, though. Besides huge profit margins it can use to continue investing, it had $50.7 billion in cash and short-term investments and just $17.7 billion in debt at the end of fiscal 2020.

Political and economic headwinds abound at the moment, but China's largest technology concern is still growing at an incredible rate. Given the risks, it's not a particularly large part of my portfolio, but the potential for further growth is hard to ignore.

Nicholas Rossolillo and his clients own shares of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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