Activist Investor Ryan Cohen Takes Stake in Alibaba and Pushes for More Stock Buybacks


Activist investor

Ryan Cohen

has built a stake in

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.


BABA 3.41%

worth hundreds of millions of dollars and is privately pushing the Chinese e-commerce giant to accelerate and further boost its share-repurchase program, according to people familiar with the matter. 

While the stake is small in comparison to Alibaba’s market capitalization of nearly $300 billion, Mr. Cohen has a wide following among individual investors who often follow his lead. 

Mr. Cohen, with a net worth of over $2.5 billion and a portfolio of stocks including

Apple Inc.

as well as

Wells Fargo

& Co. and

Citigroup Inc.,

first contacted Alibaba’s board in August to express his view that the company’s shares are deeply undervalued based on his belief that it can achieve double-digit sales and nearly 20% free-cash-flow growth over the next five years, the people said. 

Alibaba’s shares have climbed about 67% from a multiyear low in October, with its ADRs closing at $117.01 on Friday, but are still down from a high of over $300 reached in late 2020 as technology and other shares rallied in the early days of the pandemic. 

The shares have been hurt by depressed consumer sentiment in China as the country continues to grapple with Covid-19 and a sprawling clampdown on technology companies there that caused affiliate Ant Group Co. to call off its highly anticipated IPOs in Shanghai and Hong Kong. 

Subsequent to Mr. Cohen’s initial communication, Alibaba in November announced its board approved expanding the company’s share-repurchase program by $15 billion, to $40 billion, while also extending it through March of 2025. 

The mascot for Alibaba’s Taobao e-commerce platform in Hangzhou, China, last year.



Photo:

Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

Alibaba said it had repurchased roughly $18 billion of its shares under its existing buyback plan, as of November 16. 

Mr. Cohen has communicated to Alibaba’s board that the share-repurchase plan could be boosted by another $20 billion, to roughly $60 billion, the people said. 

The activist investor has expressed his admiration for management’s ability to achieve earnings growth while also assembling quality assets, they added. Mr. Cohen wants to have a collaborative, long-term relationship with Alibaba, the people said. 

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Mr. Cohen has also conveyed his belief that Apple, in which he owns a more-than $800 million stake, could provide a road map for Alibaba, the people said. Since 2012, the iPhone maker has repurchased hundreds of billions of dollars of its shares and the stock has soared. 

Share repurchases can support stocks by reducing the supply of shares traded and boosting per-share profit. Investors often take them as a bullish signal as they suggest executives are optimistic about their company’s prospects and confident in its financial position. 

In August, Alibaba showed that its once-powerful growth had run out of steam, as the company failed to post revenue growth for the first time since its blockbuster 2014 U.S. listing. Revenue for its fiscal first quarter fell 0.1% from the prior year, to the equivalent of $30.7 billion, with Alibaba blaming China’s Covid-19 outbreak, which has caused disruptions to supply chains. 

In its second quarter, Alibaba eked out 3% revenue growth. The company said that key categories within its commerce division, such as apparel and accessories and consumer electronics, had started to recover. 

Mr. Cohen, who built his fortune on online pet retailer

Chewy Inc.,

which he founded, has publicly shown an affinity for the Chinese economy in recent months. In June, he tweeted: “I have a crush on China.” Mr. Cohen also recently released a children’s book about his father’s travels to China for business.

Write to Lauren Thomas at lauren.thomas@wsj.com

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