Alibaba poised to amass more treasure

ELIZABETH KNIGHT
Last updated 13:08 18/03/2014

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Mention the word Alibaba and most Kiwis would chime in with ''40 thieves'' or ''open sesame''. Few would recognise it as China's biggest e-commerce company and possibly the largest of its type in the world.

All that's about to change as the company has announced it will list on the New York stock exchange, valued between about US$100 billion (NZ$120b) and US$150b (NZ$180b).

While the giants of digital space in the US such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter were household names and Silicon Valley was considered the epicentre of digital innovation, it was China that was starting to capture the attention of investors looking to cash in on the country's growing consumer middle class.

A rash of new e-commerce listings on exchanges such as New York and Hong Kong would also open a window to Western investors.

In the past week, China's version of Twitter, Weibo, announced plans to raise US$500 million (NZ$600m) and China's second-biggest online retailer JD.com filed in January for a US listing.

Last year Telstra had a windfall when the value of stocks in its majority-owned Chinese car sales websites group, Autohome, doubled upon its stockmarket listing.

Autohome joined Chinese companies such as online sports-lottery operator 500.com, Sungy Mobile and travel booking website Qunar Cayman Islands that made strong US debuts last year.

But Alibaba was the heavyweight of the Sino e-commerce market. It has been the subject of a war of the stock exchanges to secure the primary listing and a battle of the investment banks to act as IPO global co-ordinators.

It's easy to see why. The listing could raise about US$15b (NZ$18b) from the market - which could well place it at number one for the year in terms of size.

But, unlike many US e-commerce sites, Alibaba operated on more of a conglomerate model that had been described as Amazon meets PayPal meets Google.

The largest part of its business was market-based website Taobao, which listed 760 million products from 7 million merchants.

Where Amazon sold products online, in the Alibaba marketplace model it acted as middleman between buyer and seller and, like Google, sold advertising and placement services.

Its two main transaction sites were said to account for more than half the parcel deliveries in China and it reportedly sold more goods than Amazon and eBay combined in 2012.

While Alibaba did not yet file its profit statements, accounts of its 24 per cent shareholder, Yahoo, provided some visibility.

Profit in its third quarter came in at US$792m (NZ$950m) to US$1.3b (NZ$1.6b) for the year to September and revenue rose 51 per cent to US$1.78b (NZ$2.1b).

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The third leg of its business, Alipay (an associate) ran a payment system akin to PayPal and allowed it access to reams of data from consumers and merchants.

While smaller rivals were nipping at its heels, Alibaba was trying to protect its position by creating an e-commerce ecosystem in China. And it hasn't been shy in spending money to guard its empire.

It fought a move by competitor Tencent Holdings to buy 15 per cent of JD.com with a string of acquisitions including a US$1.1b (NZ$1.3b) investment in online map company AutoNavi Holdings and more than US$500m (NZ$600m) for 18 per cent of Sino Weibo.

But the spreading of Alibaba's tentacles had not been without controversy and detractors. Earlier this month it came up against China's central bank with plans to issue virtual credit cards in partnership with Chinese institution Citic Bank.

The People's Bank of China halted its plans because of consumer risks associated with the cards which could be scanned when paying online.

Last year Alibaba abandoned plans for an IPO in Hong Kong because the stock exchange refused to change its rules to accommodate the company's undemocratic governance structure.

It could not persuade the Hong Kong exchange to exempt it from listing rules so it could maintain a ''partnership'' structure allowing top executives, who owned 10 per cent of the company, to retain control of the board.

Presumably the US, which has long allowed different classes of voting and non-voting shares, was more accommodating of Alibaba's proposed structure to entrench more power with its founding shareholders. Rupert Murdoch's companies were a prime example.

There were other governance variations among Chinese-listed companies.

Autohome, like a number of other Chinese companies listing in the US, relied on a little-tested legal structure called ''variable interest entity'' that gives an investor economic interest but no ownership.

The structure helped companies bypass Chinese government bans on foreign ownership in some sectors.

China for years allowed big internet companies such as Baidu, Tencent Holdings and Sina Corp to operate through variable interest entities.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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