Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group Holding, at the company’s 2017 annual party.

STR / AFP via Getty Images

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“Maybe he was grabbed by the party and is in a dark room right now,” the head of a China research group told me last week. He spoke of


Founder Jack Ma, the richest man in China who hasn’t been seen in weeks.

By “party” he didn’t mean the festive way Alibaba’s annual party in 2017, when Ma, dressed as Michael Jackson in a gold mask, spun a motorcycle on stage and then bounced around for some dance moves – mostly pelvic thrusts. He was referring to China’s ruling Communist Party, which appears to have exceeded Ma and whose regulators are now after its companies.

That sounds bearish. But it’s 2021: bond yields are meager, Bitcoin has just passed the $ 40,000 mark, and investors like Michael Jack-Ma are pushing for anything with rapid revenue growth. Sure, the shares of Alibaba Group Holding (ticker: BABA) are sold out. But in a poll by FactSet, a remarkable 53 out of 54 analysts who report to Alibaba say now is a good time to buy. Is it?

Let’s start with some positive aspects. Alibaba is a formidable company with an active user base more than twice the size of the U.S. population. It is more dominant than in e-commerce in China


(AMZN) is in the US and more profitable than Amazon or


(WMT). Its major retail stores are Alibaba.com, which connects manufacturers with wholesale buyers worldwide; Taobao.com, an intermediary for buyers and sellers, like


(EBAY); and Tmall.com, a marketplace for global brands like



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“China has these technology companies that are not copies of US equivalents,” says Leland Miller, CEO of China Beige Book, the researcher I mentioned. “These are really innovative, spectacular companies.”

Alibaba has complementary ancillary businesses that cover cloud computing, shipping logistics, and more. Alipay was founded to build trust in online payments and spun it off in 2011. Today, Alipay is called Ant Group and is much larger than

PayPal stocks

(PYPL) and operates in the fields of lending, investing and insurance.

The Ant Group was supposed to go public last year. Some bulls had forecast a market value of $ 300 billion, up from $ 617 billion for Alibaba and $ 414 billion for the most recently

JPMorgan Chase

(JPM). Alibaba owns a third of the Ant Group.

In November, the stock offering was suddenly suspended. Just before Christmas, China’s regulators announced an antitrust investigation into Alibaba, as well as setting new rules for the Ant Group.

Ma, worth more than $ 40 billion, has since missed scheduled television appearances. He has not appeared in public since, in an October speech, criticizing China’s state banks for operating with a “pawnshop” mentality.

“Jack is in big trouble, both personally and with his business,” said Miller of China Beige Book. He could “wisely keep his head bowed” or he was jailed for “disrespect to the party,” Miller says.

Alibaba did not immediately respond to questions about Ma’s whereabouts.

It’s not just about the outside. Alibaba’s financial firms have long had a free hand to pay depositors more than China’s tightly regulated banks, Miller notes.

“All this money came screaming out of the state system … and it drove the state bankers crazy,” he says. “This was Jack Ma, made a fortune, stole her deposits and didn’t have to do anything.” Bankers facing shrinking deposits have berated Beijing.

Miller, a former company Attorney advising hedge funds on China founded China Beige Book in 2010 to address two issues. Official economic data from China are neither trustworthy nor complete, he says. Its employees collect data by interviewing Chinese companies: private and government, large and small, coastal and rural, national and global companies.

What do you see now? China’s official story of recovering from an economic downturn is accurate, the unvarnished numbers confirm, but the recovery has not been particularly strong and is being driven too much by increased production and too little by household demand.

The curious case of Ma illustrates the unique risks of investing in China. The government can change the rules quickly and without warning. Ma could resurface in weeks or months if Alibaba suddenly restructures and the Ant Group is under new government control.

There is a separate risk for investors buying US-listed stocks. You get equity in an offshore vehicle that invests in Alibaba, not Alibaba itself. “There’s nothing wrong with the Chinese government not being able to cut that link,” Miller says.

US-China trade tensions could one day cause China to seek new means of retaliation, including with US investors in Chinese companies. How will trade develop under a new US administration?

There is political sentiment on both sides against a softening of relations, Miller says, adding that “the tensions … not only remain, but will get significantly worse”.

Where are potential Alibaba investors? One of the rarest things in the investment universe right now is a fast growing company that trades at a modest price. Tesla is coming back for a quarter of the growth in auto shipments, but it trades at more than 100 times the free cash flow the company expects to generate in years – in 2024. Amazon looks a lot cheaper at 15 times as much from the forecast free cash flow for the year. Estimates that are far outside of the range are, of course, only guesses. Still, Alibaba expects almost 11 times the free cash it will generate in 2024.

That’s a tempting discount for such a world’s best company. But it’s best to wait for Ma to show up, with or without dancing shoes, before deciding whether stocks are worth the risk.

Write to Jack Hough at jack.hough@barrons.com. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his Barron’s Streetwise podcast.