Alibaba: It Could Get Worse


  • Short interest in Alibaba spiked by over 7% sequentially and it’s up nearly 50% since April.
  • Alibaba’s prospects appear to be deteriorating almost every other week which is probably why it’s quickly becoming popular in shorting circles.
  • The stock seems set to fall further and investors may want to avoid trying to catch falling knives.

Alibaba’s shares are down 35% year to date but the downturn may not be over yet. Latest data reveals that short interest in the stock has spiked 7% in the last reporting cycle. This rapid short build up suggests that market participants might perceive the stock to be overvalued at current levels and likely anticipate it to fall further in the coming days and weeks. This should encourage Alibaba investors to reassess their investment thesis and avoid trying to catch falling knives. Let’s take a closer look at it all.

Elevated Shorting Activity

Let me start by saying that short interest is basically the total number of short positions that are open and are yet to be covered at the end of each bi-monthly reporting cycle. A sharp rise in the metric indicates that market participants are actively placing short bets against a given stock with the anticipation that it would quickly decline in value in the foreseeable future. Conversely, a sharp decline in the metric indicates that short-side traders are closing their short positions as they perceive the stock to be fairly-valued, with limited downside potential. So, the short interest metric is a handy tool to gauge the Street’s ever-evolving sentiment pertaining to any given stock.

As far as Alibaba is concerned, its short interest amounted to 59 million at the end of the latest reporting cycle ending September 30. This figure is up 7.2% sequentially and up 47% over the past 5 months alone, indicating that market participants have gradually stacked their short-side bets against the company in recent months.

This short interest build up is rather counterintuitive as the stock has been dropping continuously and it should have, in theory at least, encouraged short-side market participants to close their shorts and book profits. But the fact that short interest in Alibaba continues to rise, in spite of its dropping stock price, suggests that market participants perceive the stock to be overvalued at current levels and are betting on the stock to fall further going forward.

Next, I wanted to compare Alibaba with other US-listed e-commerce stocks to have a better understanding of shorting activity in the said industry. If the market is betting against the vast majority of such stocks, then Alibaba wouldn’t come across as the odd one out. But that’s not quite the case here. As it turns out, short interest in Alibaba rose much faster than a broad swath of 30 other US-listed stocks that are engaged in e-commerce businesses. This confirms that market participants are more or less neutral on the industry but specifically bearish on Alibaba.

This raises an important question now – why are market participants actively shorting Alibaba even though its shares have crashed significantly and are seemingly undervalued?

Reasons Fueling Pessimism

First of all, I’d like to clear the misconception that Alibaba is undervalued after its recent correction. It may seem undervalued on a standalone basis but that’s not really the case when we look at industry comparables. The chart below should put things in perspective.

The Y-axis plots the enterprise value-to-free cash flow (or EV/FCF) values for over 30 stocks that are classified in the e-commerce/internet retail industry. Note how Alibaba is vertically positioned much higher than a broad swath of its mentioned peers, indicating that the stock is trading at a relative premium.

Now, let’s shift attention to the X-axis, which plots the free cash flow growth for the same set of companies. Note how Alibaba is horizontally positioned more or less in the middle, indicating that its free cash flow growth is in-line with the industry averages.

The collective takeaway from both the axes here is that Alibaba is a mediocre performer in terms of free cash flow growth but its shares are trading at a premium nonetheless. There are in fact 4 other stocks in the e-commerce industry that are growing free cash flows at a rate faster than Alibaba, but their shares still trading at a lower EV/FCF multiple.

It’s not like the business prospects are improving or signaling impending growth for Alibaba, either. Much like the US, analysts and rating agencies have been slashing GDP growth forecasts for China almost every other week. This deteriorating macroeconomic environment is bound to limit personal disposable income and hinder consumer spending across major economies, which will inevitably weigh down on Alibaba’s business. We’re already seeing analysts slashing their revenue estimates for the company and I contend that more cuts shall follow in the coming 2 to 3 months at the very least.

Data by YCharts

What exacerbates the problem is that we don’t know how far along will revenue expectations drop for Alibaba. Maybe 2 months down the line, we’d have slashed our revenue estimates for Alibaba by $10 billion or maybe it’ll be $30 billion, we just don’t know. This heightened uncertainty amidst growing recessionary fears, makes it difficult for anyone to call a bottom for an e-commerce company such as Alibaba. So, this is another major reason why we think we’re seeing short interest spike in the company’s shares of late.

There’s another variable at play here. US auditors flew to Hong Kong a few weeks ago to conduct audit inspections on US-listed Chinese companies such as Alibaba. These inspections are likely to last from 8-12 weeks and will reveal if Alibaba is audited in accordance with the US GAAP or if there are irregularities in its reporting. If it’s the latter, then it’ll fuel further fear, uncertainty and doubt about the legitimacy of Alibaba’s growth prospects, and fuel speculation about the quantum of penalty that might be imposed by US regulators. This essentially means the moment of truth is fast approaching for US-listed Chinese companies such as Alibaba.

Final Thoughts

The takeaway here is that Alibaba’s shares are trading at a premium relative to its peers, despite heightened macroeconomic and regulatory uncertainty surrounding the name. This is likely why short interest in the name has been surging and will continue to do so in the coming weeks as well. So, I believe that investors may want to avoid the stock for the time being, as it looks set to fall further from the current levels. Good Luck!

Author: Business Quant, Seeking Alpha

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