Alibaba Group (BABA) isn't quite the darling of Wall Street it once was. However, there is one titan of investment who has not yet lost faith.
Despite a dismal 2021 and continued concerns on not only regulatory risks, but the stability of the Chinese economy, Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger is not shying away from the top China tech stock. Instead, he's been steadily doubling down, all the way down.
Per a recent 13-F filing, the Munger-led Daily Journal Corp. (DJCO) nearly doubled its stake in Alibaba in the third quarter of this year, moving its stake north of 300,000 shares of ADRs (American Depository Receipts). The big bet over the course of the quarter brings his total stake in the stock to over $50 million, not a small sum even for Munger.
As the stock has plummeted over 40% in the past year and has hardly rebounded from an early October nadir that wiped away four years of gains, investors are left with an important question: Is Munger once again moving in at just the right moment, or is this a mistake from the legendary investor?
To be sure, Munger has earned his reputation as an incredibly savvy investor. Further, he has derived his venerable reputation alongside Warren Buffett as a value investor.
"Charlie Munger comes from a league of investors, which includes his closest ally Warren Buffett, who never overlook fundamentals before making any investment decision," Kunal Sawhney, CEO of equity research firm Kalkine, told Real Money. "Alibaba, where Munger's Daily Journal has acquired more shares, has arguably the strongest fundamentals among companies in [China]."
Indeed, from a purely fundamental perspective, a price-to-earnings ratio of only about 20 appears paltry next to many high-flying U.S. tech names. In fact, it is only a third of Amazon's (AMZN) valuation despite a growing ecosystem and a larger user base than its U.S. peer.
As such, Munger might be doubling down on the stock as it goes on sale, certainly a move well within his modus operandi. In a more commonly quoted form, getting greedy while others are fearful.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be fearful.
For one, the lack of fear Munger displayed in the first quarter appears to have been misplaced as his margin of safety was simply not what he had assumed. As regulatory measures ramped up from the first quarter buy-in, the stock has barreled steadily toward lower lows.
After a relatively strong performance amidst the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic as Chinese consumers increased reliance on e-commerce, a slew of risks rapidly deflated its rally. This included not only the peculiar disappearance of its famed founder Jack Ma at the end of 2020, but threats to the core of the business itself.
While trouble arguably flared up most visibly in the run-up to Ant Financial's hotly anticipated U.S. IPO, the heat put on Alibaba by regulators has not been turned down since. In fact, under Xi Jinping's new "Common Prosperity" initiative, big Chinese tech names like Alibaba, Pinduoduo (DUO) , and Tencent (TCEHY) have come yet more firmly into regulatory crosshairs.
In an apparent attempt to alleviate concern about its booming profits, Alibaba committed to donating $15.5 billion to government-led projects aimed at minimizing the wealth gap.
In short, investing in a large e-commerce platform in a communist country is a shaky proposition. The promise prior to 2020 was that China was not truly communist or, at least, not so ideologically driven so as to stunt its own growth. As crackdowns continue on major tech names like Alibaba, though, it appears investors like Munger can no longer abide by the assumption that the government will simply allow businesses to flourish.
It could get worse, however, as the slow-rolling real estate crisis sparked by Evergrande has put the entire Chinese economy into an uncertain position.
For reference, the real estate sector undergirds about 25% of China's GDP. In recent years, as the sector has gorged on debt, housing prices have inflated to world-leading levels. So too have consumer debt levels, in a fashion not entirely dissimilar from the U.S. housing bubble in 2008.
Given the confluence of these concerns, the impact on the overall Chinese market could be significant and would inevitably ensnare consumers. In this scenario, the undervaluation of Alibaba would appear eminently appropriate. Thus, Munger may not be getting the bargain he appears to believe he is getting.
Betting on Beijing
Inherent in some of Munger's calculations is the idea that Beijing is not willing to cut off its own nose to spite its face.
Indeed, this was his stated thinking in Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A) (BRK.B) annual shareholder meeting earlier this year when asked about his initial purchase of 165,320 shares of Alibaba in the first quarter of this year.
"The Chinese government will allow businesses to flourish," Munger declared in March. "They changed communism. They accepted Adam Smith and added it to their communism and now we have 'Communism with Chinese Characteristics', which is China with a free market and a bunch of billionaires."
He went on to quote former Chinese Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, while praising the transition from Maoist autarky to the modern Chinese economy.
While he would not likely continue to characterize the Chinese economy as "free market" and likely wants a mulligan on his first-quarter bet on the e-commerce giant, Munger's eagerness to double down is a signal of his steadfast belief in Beijing's motivation.
David Kass, Clinical Professor of Finance at University of Maryland, suggested his conviction may be solidified by the input of a few trusted advisors that are very attuned to the tech space in China specifically.
"He relies heavily on the advice of his friend, [Himalaya Capital Management founder] Li Lu, who is very knowledgeable about the best investments in China," he told Real Money. "Munger would not have made this investment without the approval of Li Lu."
The assumption herein also relies upon the government easing up on its regulatory rampage. While moral hazard concerns make the real estate issues more problematic, the punishment for the tech names specifically might be coming to a close. Therefore, a key overhang that has saddled Alibaba stock amidst its current slide may finally be fading away.
Kass added that while Munger is nearing a century on this Earth, his investment style has always favored a long-term approach. Indeed, among his many golden nuggets of investing advice, patience is a recurring theme.
"Waiting helps you as an investor and a lot of people just can't stand to wait," Munger is famously quoted as saying. "If you didn't get the deferred-gratification gene, you've got to work very hard to overcome that."
Buy or Sell on BABA?
Munger's prodigious investment wisdom aside, the present troubles in the Chinese economy and the uncertain political environment ahead of the 2022 Party Congress wherein Xi will seek a lifetime term stand to undercut the otherwise viable valuation arguments. Also, a pivot towards Common Prosperity presents significant problems for consumer-spending trends that have buoyed Alibaba's rise to its present status.
"We cannot allow the gap between the rich and the poor to continue growing-for the poor to keep getting poorer while the rich continue growing richer," Xi wrote in a recent essay echoing his increasingly socialist pronouncements of late. "We cannot permit the wealth gap to become an unbridgeable gulf."
The issue for investors is that wealthy Chinese consumers drive a disproportionate amount of e-commerce spending, namely on the luxury brands that populate Alibaba's T-Mall online marketplace.
In short, the sheer amount of questions swirling around Chinese stocks make sussing out a fair valuation for any of the headline names a seriously difficult task. As such, the waiting may be best done on the sidelines in the case of Alibaba.