Alibaba scales back Silicon Valley presence amid Trump crackdown

Chinese ecommerce giant’s venture arm has announced only one new US project this year

Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma. The Chinese ecommerce giant’s Alibaba’s pullback from US investments coincides with escalating tensions between the US and China. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma. The Chinese ecommerce giant’s Alibaba’s pullback from US investments coincides with escalating tensions between the US and China. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

 

Alibaba is scaling back its presence in Silicon Valley – a sign that the Trump administration’s crackdown on Chinese investment in US companies is casting a chill.

After a flurry of deal-making, the Chinese ecommerce giant’s corporate venture arm has announced only one fresh investment in the US this year, leading a $26.4 million funding round in a New York and Tel Aviv data-analysis start-up called SQream Technologies. That’s a tiny deal compared with the hundreds of millions Alibaba lavished on high-profile US companies such as Magic Leap, Jet. com and Snap.

Earlier this year the company lost its top US dealmaker, Michael Zeisser, according to sources. Rather than hiring an outside replacement, Alibaba is promoting Peter Stern, who used to be an investment banker at Credit Suisse, the sources said.

Escalating tensions

Alibaba’s pullback coincides with escalating tensions between the US and China. The Trump administration has been cracking down on Chinese investments in US technology, from takeovers to venture capital funding rounds. On Tuesday, administration officials said Mr Trump wants Congress to give expanded powers to the committee on foreign investment in the United States, or CFIUS, which reviews foreign takeovers. Earlier this year, Ant Financial – the payments giant spun out of Alibaba – abandoned plans to buy MoneyGram International after CFIUS blocked the transaction on national-security grounds.

“Given the current environment it remains to be seen what investments they can make without CFIUS getting against them,” said Hans Tung, managing partner at GGV Capital, an early investor in Alibaba. Going “where they’re more welcomed makes more sense”. The shares fell 3.3 per cent to $185.02 on Wednesday and are up 7.3 per cent so far this year.

Alibaba declined to comment.

Online bazaars

Alibaba’s priority in the US has long been to persuade businesses there to sell to Chinese consumers via its massive online bazaars, rather than chasing US consumers and competing with the likes of Amazon. com. Alibaba looked for American startups that would help it learn about new technologies and trends as well as businesses that would complement its core ecommerce offerings in Asia.

Alibaba took sizable stakes in sports ecommerce retailer Fanatics, gaming company Kabam, messaging app Tango, ride-hailing startup Lyft, ecommerce company Jet.com and Snap. More recently, Alibaba’s investments had shifted toward early-stage companies that would help make Alibaba more efficient, including data-storage firms and startups building location-based technology.

Now Alibaba is once again focusing its dealmaking on Asia. To fulfil billionaire co-founder Jack Ma’s vision of bringing Chinese supermarkets and department stores into the 21st century, Alibaba has sunk billions of dollars into traditional retail, from buying existing companies to opening cashierless brick-and-mortar stores. To attract new consumers in the fast-growing economies of Southeast Asia, Alibaba invested $4 billion in Singapore-based ecommerce giant Lazada Group and led a $1.1 billion investment round in Tokopedia, an Indonesian online marketplace.

AI experiments

Alibaba isn’t the only Chinese company avoiding the US these days. In the first five months of the year, Chinese acquisitions and investments fell to the lowest level in seven years, a drop of 92 per cent, according to Rhodium Group.

Though it may become increasingly difficult for Alibaba to make big investments in US companies, it’s finding other ways to innovate. The company has pushed into a huge range of businesses from cloud services to entertainment, a vast laboratory to experiment with such emerging technologies as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Last year, Alibaba said it would spend $15 billion on research and recruiting scientists from the US, China, Russia, Israel and Singapore. – Bloomberg