Short sellers circle Alibaba amid SEC probe

Thu May 26, 2016 8:25pm EDT
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By Jennifer Ablan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (BABA.N: Quote), which disclosed it is under investigation for its accounting practices, has emerged as one of the short-selling community's favorite targets in the relatively short time it has been in the public market.

Noted short-sellers Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates and John Hempton of Bronte Capital have been raising red flags since last year about the Chinese e-commerce giant's accounting practices.

Hempton told Reuters in an email on Thursday that Alibaba, which went public in September 2014, is "a real company" but "with questionable accounts." He added: "The ability to value it from the accounts is, thus, tricky."

Hempton said he believes shares will eventually "go down a lot - and get a takeover bid". A takeover would require deep pockets without an extreme decline - the company is currently worth about $190 billion.

Questions about Alibaba's growth rate and its relations with affiliated companies have dogged the firm for years. The latest investigation highlights how far Alibaba has to go to improve transparency, while a continuing acquisition spree creates uncertainty over its earnings.

Alibaba declined to comment beyond its statements on Wednesday that it was cooperating with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, that the SEC had said a request for information did not indicate that it believed federal laws had been violated, and that the annual report delivered this week was "exactly" the type of information regulators requested.

Alibaba said the SEC investigation launched earlier this year focused on the accounting for logistics firm Cainiao Network, which is around 47 percent-owned by Alibaba, accounting practices applicable to related-party transactions in general, and operating data from its annual "Singles' Day" sale, according to Alibaba's annual report filed on Tuesday.

Shares of Alibaba recovered a bit on Thursday, closing up 3.65 percent at $78.35, after diving nearly 7 percent the day before. Some financial analysts downplayed the inquiry.   Continued...

A sign of Alibaba Group is seen at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Asia 2016 in Shanghai, China, May 12, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo