Yahoo tense and defensive about Alipay

@CNNMoneyTech May 25, 2011: 5:36 PM ET
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Yahoo and its stock have been under fire as a result of the Alipay controversy.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Yahoo's annual meeting with financial analysts kicked off Wednesday on a tense note, as executives struggled to answer hardball questions about ongoing issues with Chinese Internet company Alibaba.

Yahoo owns about 40% of Alibaba Group, which itself owns Yahoo China as well as three massive Chinese properties. That includes online payment service Alipay, which is the center of the controversy.

"Like any business relationship, there are bumps in the road," Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz said at the analyst event, which was held in San Jose, Calif.

"Bumps" is an understatement. Yahoo -- and its stock -- have been under fire since earlier this month, when Yahoo disclosed to the SEC that Alibaba transferred 100% of its ownership of Alipay to a new company controlled by Alibaba CEO Jack Ma.

Alibaba said it was necessary to restructure Alipay as a domestic Chinese company in order to speed up the process for obtaining a regulatory license. Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) shares fell 7% on the news, as its Alibaba stake is one of the company's bright spots.

"This is a very complex situation with multiple parties, multiple countries, and an uncertain regulatory environment," Bartz said Wednesday.

'Not discussing the past': Bartz, along with Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and CFO Tim Morse, declined to answer many Alibaba-related questions from analysts at the event.

Bartz said several times that Yahoo "had an agreement with Alipay that none of us were going to discuss the past, and we're sticking to that."

That may be because Yahoo has botched past attempts to gloss over the Alibaba worries. One day after its SEC disclosure, Yahoo scrambled to clean up the mess by saying it was not made aware of the asset transfer until March 31 -- and that it "occurred without the knowledge or approval of the Alibaba Group board of directors or shareholders."

Alibaba disputed those claims, saying the transfer was discussed at several board meetings years ago. Yahoo's stock fell another 6% after the failed explanation.

Yahoo executives stuck to a few talking points at the analyst event. Co-founder and board member Yang repeated several times that Yahoo, Alibaba and Softbank, which owns about 33% of Alibaba, are in agreement on a few major principles: Alipay has to get licensed, and Alibaba needs to be fairly compensated for its Alipay stake.

CFO Morse was visibly frustrated with analysts' repeated attempts to glean more details. An intricate question about Alipay's value received a curt response from Morse, that it is "extremely, extremely immaterial" to Yahoo's overall balance sheet.

The rest of the day's events focused on content, financials and the company's plans for the future. In a Q&A session at the end of the day, many of the questions focused on Yahoo's flagging search revenue.

But analysts and investors likely won't give up asking questions about Alibaba, which has become a larger focus as former Yahoo strongholds like display advertising and search continue to struggle. In addition to owning Yahoo China and Alipay, Alibaba also owns B2B platform Alibaba.com and e-commerce site Taobao.

Alibaba went public on Hong Kong's stock exchange in 2007 and raised $1.7 billion -- at the time the second-biggest Internet IPO ever, behind only Google (GOOG, Fortune 500).

Alibaba has been so successful, in fact, that in September it offered to buy back Yahoo's stake for about $11 billion. Yahoo declined. To top of page

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