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Alibaba Prepares for IPO in U.S.

The Chinese e-commerce giant's New York stock market listing could raise more than $15 billion.

Alibaba, operator of Chinese e-commerce site Taobao.com, could raise more than $15 billion in an initial public offering.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba said Sunday it is pursuing an initial public offering in the U.S., setting the stage for a highly anticipated IPO that could raise more than $15 billion.

This story first appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The announcement follows a series of press reports stating that the company was preparing for a New York stock market listing, although a source familiar with the offering said Alibaba has not yet made a final decision on an exchange. The IPO is slated for the third quarter, the source added.

“This will make us a more global company and enhance the company’s transparency, as well as allow the company to continue to pursue our long-term vision and ideals. Should circumstances permit in the future, we will be constructive toward extending our public status in the China capital market in order to share our growth with the people of China,” Alibaba said.

Last week, Alibaba executive vice chairman Joe Tsai told Reuters the company would not change its ownership structure in order to meet Hong Kong Stock Exchange requirements. The source familiar with the offering said the company might consider a secondary listing in Mainland China at some stage.

Alibaba operates Taobao.com, China’s largest consumer-to-consumer e-commerce site, and Tmall.com, a business-to-consumer site with more than 70,000 international and Chinese brands available from more than 50,000 merchants.

The company has been hot on the acquisitions trail. Just last week, it bought a 60 percent stake in Chinese television and film production firm ChinaVision Media Group for 6.24 billion Hong Kong dollars, or $804 million at current exchange.

China’s Internet retail market is growing rapidly. Euromonitor valued the market at 607.4 billion yuan, or $98.8 billion, last year and said it is projected to reach 1.85 trillion yuan, or $301 billion, by 2018.

Still, Alibaba is facing increasing competition within China, specifically from Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., which owns social networking service WeChat. Last week Tencent said it would buy a 15 percent stake in JD.com, China’s second largest e-commerce company, behind Alibaba. The deal helps strengthen Tencent’s presence in the e-commerce market while giving JD access to Tencent’s considerable mobile and Internet user base.

Alibaba is not the only Chinese tech company seeking a U.S. listing at the moment. On Friday, Weibo Corp., owner of the microblogging service considered China’s answer to Twitter, filed for a U.S. stock offering. It is seeking to raise up to $500 million. Alibaba has a minority stake in Weibo.

As for Alibaba’s plans, Torsten Stocker, a Hong Kong-based partner at consulting firm A.T. Kearney, said, “I thought they would have preferred Hong Kong. It is closer to their headquarters in China. It doesn’t have some of the litigious aspects that listing in the U.S. brings. Their e-commerce platforms may still have a lot of pirated stuff for sale, and I think that is probably more of a risk in the U.S. than in Hong Kong. I think they ultimately would have preferred Hong Kong but decided it is ultimately more important for them to maintain control.”

Franklin Yao, chief executive officer of the Shanghai-based consultancy Smith Street Solutions, said he thinks Alibaba’s massive expansion is not “window dressing” for its upcoming IPO but rather an indication that the company remains “bullish” about the Chinese internet. “I think that is why they are making all of these investments and acquisitions. That is why they are doing an IPO,” Yao said. “They want to have better infrastructure and the IPO as a showcase to continue their expansion. The cynic would say that it is window dressing, but I don’t think that is what they believe. They want to get their hands on every piece of China’s e-commerce and internet infrastructure right now so they are buying low on everything. They still believe that the e-commerce market in China is nascent and are very optimistic about where e-commerce is going to go.”

Yao believes Alibaba may also have very aggressive plans to enter the U.S. market. In February, Alibaba said it would launch a new e-commerce site, called 11Main.com, in the U.S. via Vendio Services Inc. and Auctiva, two of the company’s subsidiaries.