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Alibaba Warns Virus Having Broad Impact on Chinese Economy

Lulu Yilun Chen, Kari Lindberg and Zheping Huang

(Bloomberg) -- Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. warned that the coronavirus responsible for killing more than 1,300 people in China is exerting a fundamental impact on the country’s consumers and merchants, and will hurt its revenue growth in the current quarter.

Alibaba, the first major Chinese technology corporation to report results since the epidemic emerged in January, said the virus is undermining production in the economy because many workers can’t get to or perform their jobs. It has also changed buying patterns with consumers pulling back on discretionary spending, including travel and restaurants.

The Chinese e-commerce giant made the comments after reporting strong financial results for the quarter that ended in December. Revenue surged a better-than-expected 38% to 161.5 billion yuan ($23.1 billion), while net income rose 58% to 52.3 billion yuan.

But Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang and Chief Financial Officer Maggie Wu were clear about the fallout from the deadly virus on employees, suppliers and merchants. Many merchants that work with the company have not been able to return to normal operations because of a shortage of employees. Alibaba’s U.S.-listed shares slid 1.8% Thursday.

“The epidemic has negatively impacted the overall China economy, especially the retail and service sectors,” said Wu in a conference call after the results. “While demand for goods and services is there, the means of production in the economy has been hampered by the delayed opening of offices, factories and schools after the Lunar New Year’s holiday.”

Asked about the affect on Alibaba, she voiced caution about giving estimates because it’s only halfway through the March quarter.

“Overall revenue will be negatively impacted,” she said, adding that the hit to growth could be “significantly” negative.

Zhang said that they are seeing relatively large changes in buying patterns. While food delivery is growing, areas like clothing and electronics are running into logistical problems. He warned that the core e-commerce business suffered a negative impact in the first two weeks after the holiday. Restaurant orders and travel bookings have also taken hits, hurting its Ele.me delivery and Alitrip businesses..

“It will present near term challenges to Alibaba’s businesses across the board,” he said on the conference call, adding that there will also be opportunities.

Alibaba is rolling out special programs to support merchants, including lowering the fees it charges and providing subsidies for delivery personnel. Zhang said the company is trying to keep its own staff safe, including having many work from home.

Zhang said that more workers are going back to work in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Many logistic companies are also recovering their capacity in the past 12 days.

China’s economy -- which had been showing signs of stabilization after a rough year buffered by the U.S. trade war -- has been hammered by the virus and measures to prevent its spread. Economists have been lowering their growth forecasts for the first quarter and the full year with factories shuttered, supply chains disrupted and consumers reluctant to go outside for fear of contagion.

Bloomberg Economics’s scenario analysis suggests China’s first-quarter GDP growth could slow to 4.5% year on year -- a record low. “If that happens, a period of weaker imports will transmit the shock to trade partners,” according to Chief Economist Tom Orlik.

Already, China’s most valuable corporation has struggled to sustain growth rates during an economic slowdown in its home market. While widespread home confinement is spurring demand for online services from grocery delivery to office apps to streaming entertainment, the disease is snarling nationwide transport and threatens in the long run to dent the consumer spending Alibaba depends on.

The disruption to Alibaba’s business from the virus “may be worse than feared,” wrote Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Vey-Sern Ling and Tiffany Tam in a report. “Alibaba’s sales may contract in its core China retail marketplaces and local services business in the coming quarter even if the coronavirus outbreak subsides, as logistic and production disruptions faced by merchants could take time to resolve.”

This week, the company declared a waiver of some service fees for merchants on its main direct-to-consumer Tmall platform to help those struggling with the fallout from the outbreak. That may further depress the top-line in 2020.

“It was always thought that Alibaba’s core commerce revenue would have the brakes applied to it either because of China’s macroeconomic condition, or slower user growth,” said Michael Norris, research and strategy manager at Shanghai-based consultancy AgencyChina. “But what this coronavirus event forces us to do is to consider a third scenario -- where Alibaba’s revenue will take a hit from a reduction in merchant fees and advertising spend.”

Alibaba has shed 1.4% of its value since a broader Chinese selloff began in January, underperforming arch-rival Tencent Holdings Ltd., which as a mobile gaming and social media operator is better shielded in the short run from the epidemic.

Read more: Coronavirus Outbreak Drives Demand for China’s Online Grocers

(Updates with analyst comment in penultimate paragraph)

--With assistance from Malcolm Scott.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lulu Yilun Chen in Hong Kong at ychen447@bloomberg.net;Kari Lindberg in Hong Kong at klindberg13@bloomberg.net;Zheping Huang in Hong Kong at zhuang245@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Elstrom at pelstrom@bloomberg.net, Edwin Chan, Colum Murphy

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