Risk & Compliance

Alibaba Discloses U.S. Probe of Accounting

The SEC investigation comes as analysts and investors have questioned the transparency of the e-commerce giant's financial statements.
Matthew HellerMay 25, 2016

Alibaba shares fell sharply on Wednesday after the Chinese e-commerce giant disclosed that U.S. regulators had opened an investigation into its accounting practices.

In a regulatory filing, Alibaba said the Securities and Exchange Commission had requested documents and information relating to, among other things, its accounting for web companies including the Cainiao logistics venture in which it owns stakes or has some say in the operations.

Another focus of the investigation is its “Singles Day” promotion in China that generated more than $14 billion in revenue on Nov. 11.

“We are … cooperating with the SEC and, through our legal counsel, have been providing the SEC with requested documents and information,” Alibaba said in the filing, adding that the investigation was not an indication it had violated any law.

In trading Wednesday, the company’s shares plunged $5.55, or 6.8%, the second-biggest one-day price and percentage losses since it went public on Sept. 19, 2014.

“The disclosure risks tarnishing a rare Chinese company that has won global fame for its business acumen,” The New York Times said, noting that the stock has been volatile amid “investor concerns about China’s slowing economic growth and Alibaba’s enormous shopping spree to try to cater to the growing legions of Chinese consumers who order everything from taxis to in-home massages on their smartphones.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, some analysts and investors have questioned the transparency of Alibaba’s financial statements, particularly the way it self-reports gross merchandise volume for Singles Day. The numbers could be overstated, analysts say, as Alibaba includes transactions that have been placed, but not completed, including returns.

In a recent report, analysts at Pacific Square Research said that at times Alibaba used its web of investments to control companies like Cainiao without taking their losses onto its balance sheet.

“We haven’t seen anything quite as difficult to untangle as this in our respective careers,” Herb Greenberg, a managing partner of Pacific Square, told the Times. “In our view, Alibaba is like a big ball of wet knotted yarn.”

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