SHANGHAI — Alibaba became one of the world’s biggest internet companies thanks to the growing wealth and online shopping habits of Chinese consumers. Now, as China’s economy slows, it has become a symbol of their new sense of caution.
The company, China’s largest e-commerce business, said on Wednesday that its earnings growth had fallen. Its revenue was slightly below analysts’ expectations, growing 41 percent, its slowest pace since early 2016, reflecting both the sheer size of the company and widening troubles in the Chinese economy, the world’s second largest.
Alibaba’s shares rose in premarket trading, however, because it beat analysts’ estimates on adjusted earnings per share, posting growth of 15 percent.
Last week, China posted its slowest quarterly growth reading in a decade. Retail sales growth has similarly slowed, though it picked up a bit in December, and private-sector wage growth is down to global financial crisis levels. Middle-class Chinese people are increasingly cutting back.
Purchases of big-ticket items like cars and smartphones have fallen off especially quickly. Apple said on Tuesday that profits were flat and revenues were down in its most recent quarter, in part because of weakness in sales in China. Data from the research firm Canalys showed that smartphone sales in China had fallen 14 percent in 2018, to their lowest levels since 2013.
During an earnings call, Alibaba executives sought to play down concerns about the Chinese economy and the smoldering trade war between Beijing and Washington. Joseph C. Tsai, the company’s executive vice chairman, said that Alibaba’s exposure to the trade war was low and he emphasized that e-commerce had generally grown much faster than China’s economy.
“The slowdown of macro might cause concerns in the market, however what we see from Alibaba’s platforms is Chinese consumption growth is still strong,” Alibaba’s chief executive, Daniel Zhang, said. He added that although there had been weakness in sales of goods like appliances and smartphones, other sectors, like apparel and home furnishing, have had fast growth.
Alibaba has suffered, however. Its shares have fallen about 16 percent in the past six months. It has also cut its estimate of revenue growth for the current fiscal year, which ends in March, by about 5 percent. On its blowout Singles Day sale in November, Alibaba sales grew from a year earlier, but also at a much slower rate. A bike-sharing company it backed, called Ofo, has also fallen into trouble, and millions of users are demanding deposits back.
“We expect a tougher macroeconomic outlook for China to weigh on Alibaba’s commissions and advertising revenue for the next few quarters,” said Shelleen Shum, an analyst with research firm eMarketer, in a report.
With hundreds of millions of customers regularly using its online shopping websites, Alibaba is a good barometer of consumer sentiment. But just as important, the bulk of the company’s earnings come from advertisements bought by the many vendors and companies that sell on its websites, making it also a good proxy for business confidence.
Many sellers have remained cautious, in part because of economic uncertainties, leading to a build up in Alibaba’s ad inventories, according to a report by Credit Suisse.
To push back, Alibaba has looked to recruit new users, often from China’s rural areas, who are less well served by e-commerce. Efforts to attract users via digital media like online videos and domestic social media sites dragged on the company’s profitability, analysts said.
The company has continued to add consumers. It said that its monthly active users on mobile devices rose to 699 million, an addition of more than 30 million people from the previous quarter. Analysts have said such user growth shows Alibaba still has room to grow by spreading out further into China’s countryside.
At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos earlier this month, Mr. Tsai, Alibaba’s executive vice chairman, also warned about the long-term economic impact of the trade war between the United States and China. Still, he said that the trade deficit between China and the United States would naturally fall as Chinese consumers spend more on overseas goods.