Alibaba's Woes Continue as Jack Ma Disappears From Public View

Alibaba's founder hasn’t appeared in public since late October, when he criticized the government’s regulatory approach.
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Alibaba  (BABA) - Get Report shares fell Monday amid speculation about the whereabouts of its founder Jack Ma, as he has retreated from public view over the last two months.

Ma hasn’t appeared in public since late October, when he criticized the government’s regulatory approach at a conference in Shanghai. The Shanghai Stock Exchange proceeded to scuttle the $37 billion IPO of Alibaba’s payment/technology affiliate Ant Group. And since then, regulators have launched an antitrust investigation into Alibaba in late December, and are considering plans to force Ant Group to divest its holdings in certain financial companies.

Alibaba shares recently traded at $225.22, down 3.23%, and have fallen 27% since Ma's criticism of the government in October.

Ma’s withdrawal from public includes a missed November appearance as a judge on a TV show that he created called Africa’s Business Heroes, which gives African entrepreneurs the chance to compete for large cash prizes. A spokesperson for Alibaba said Ma was unable to participate “due to a schedule conflict”, the Financial Times reported.

The most likely explanation for Ma's public disappearance is that he's decided to keep a low profile with the government on his tail.

“I think he’s been told to lay low,” Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based technology consultants BDA China, told Reuters. “This is a pretty unique situation, more linked to the sheer scale of Ant and the sensitivities over financial regulation,” he said.

Last week, Baird analyst Colin Sebastian cut his price target on Alibaba to $285 from $325, maintaining his outperform rating, thanks to the government’s anti-trust investigation of Alibaba.

It’s “very hard to predict the outcome” of the investigation, Sebastian wrote in a commentary. It “will not likely result in significant changes to the company’s core business,” he said.

But stronger regulation “may open the door for competitors, including smaller regional players, to gain market share,” Sebastian said. That could put a small dent in Alibaba’s growth, but won’t have a major impact.