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Analysis: Jack Ma's reappearance fails to soothe all investor concerns

Megan Davies, John McCrank and Ross Kerber
·3-min read
Alibaba Group's Jack Ma attends the WAIC in Shanghai

By Megan Davies, John McCrank and Ross Kerber

NEW YORK/BOSTON (Reuters) - Jack Ma's 50-second video reappearance may have buoyed Alibaba Group's shares, yet it has done little to resolve the Chinese e-commerce giant's troubled relationship with regulators that is making some investors hesitate about owning its stock.

The company's American Depositary Receipts (ADRs) rose more than 5% on Wednesday, following a 8.5% gain in its Hong Kong-listed shares, after founder Ma made his first public appearance since October on Wednesday.

Ma had not appeared in public since Oct. 24, when he blasted China's regulatory system. That set him on a collision course with officials and led to the suspension of a blockbuster $37 billion IPO for Alibaba's financial technology affiliate Ant Group.

A source familiar with the matter said Ma cleared his schedule late last year to keep a low profile, prompting discussion at Alibaba about when and how he should reappear to assure investors. It was decided he should do something that would appear as part of his normal routine, rather than anything overt that could irk the government.

While Ma has stepped down from corporate positions and earnings calls, he retains significant influence over Alibaba and Ant.

Despite Wednesday's stock gain, there was skepticism that Ma's appearance meant all was well.

"What his actual state is will be completely up to Beijing to reveal to us," Leland Miller, CEO of U.S.-based consultancy China Beige Book. "What we do know is whether Jack is running around, Jack is hiding or something else, Alibaba is not in the clear. There is a lot more of the story still to see."

Two investors who have sold out or reduced positions in Alibaba said they need more reassurance about the company and the regulatory environment before reconsidering the stock.

"One of our top criteria is leadership and we were investing in Alibaba because I really respect Jack Ma as a leader," said William Huston, founder and director of institutional services at independent investment advisory firm Bay Street Capital Holdings in Palo Alto, CA, with assets under management of $86 million.

"We all know that just because he showed up ... doesn't necessarily explain what is going on."

Huston, who reduced the firm's positions in Alibaba last year from 8% of the portfolio to less than 1%, said the pulling of the Ant IPO had caused too much uncertainty.

"All of this has put us in a state of mind where Alibaba is not a prudent investment for us going forward," Huston said.

David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors, Florida, which has about $4 billion in assets, said he held Alibaba last year but sold as the Ant IPO was pulled.

"When you don't know what to do in an evolving situation like this you can't use traditional securities analytics to reach decisions. We are standing aside and watching," Kotok said.

Uncertainty about Alibaba has hurt the stock, which remains below levels prior to the cancellation of the Ant IPO.

Dennis Dick, a proprietary trader at Bright Trading, who holds Alibaba shares, said he had protected against a potential fall when speculation about Ma's whereabouts began by buying put options. He covered those puts earlier in January on a report that Ma was OK and retains a long position in the stock.

Some said that it would be better for China for Alibaba to be allowed to prosper.

"Given the reaction of investors to Alibaba’s share prices, if Beijing is rational, it would be wise to not mess with one of the country’s golden gooses," said Harry Broadman, partner of consultancy Berkeley Research Group LLC.

(Additional reporting by Greg Roumeliotis in New York; Editing by Stephen Coates)