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Tuesday, Oct 27, 2020

Why Alibaba is betting on Hong Kong

Political protests and petrol bombs aren't the ideal backdrop for a top global company looking to raise billions of dollars from investors.

But that's exactly what Alibaba is doing.

The Chinese e-commerce giant is preparing to raise at least $11bn (£8.5bn) by listing its shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange next week, in what could be the year's biggest public share sale.

"Hong Kong is one of the world's most important financial centers," reads a letter to potential investors from Alibaba's chairman, Daniel Zhang.

"During this time of ongoing change, we continue to believe that the future of Hong Kong remains bright."

That's a pretty optimistic assessment given the violence on university campuses and the streets of Hong Kong this week alone.

So why now? And what does the multi-billion dollar listing tell us about investor confidence in Hong Kong?

Sources close to the company say political unrest in Hong Kong wasn't a factor in whether to go ahead with the listing, and the social upheaval doesn't appear to have affected appetite for Alibaba's shares.

The share offer closed ahead of schedule, which means that investors snapped up the stock at a faster pace than expected.

But some say the timing of the listing is questionable.

Max Bondurri, founder of SGMC Capital, says Alibaba could have raised more funds if it had waited.

"From a purely economic point of view they could have waited till next year to list, at a time when some of the unrest may perhaps have died down."

However, he believes the decision to list now was motivated also by political, rather than purely financial, concerns."

The suggestion is that Beijing can influence decision-making at Chinese companies to serve its political interests.

"It's an attempt to take the negative headlines away from what's going on in the streets and universities," he says.

"It will help to remind international investors that Hong Kong is still open for business."

Still, the protests have had an impact. The listing event itself is likely to be low-key and low-profile.

It is unclear whether Jack Ma, the exuberant former chairman whose name has become synonymous with the e-commerce giant, will attend. It's also not clear if Mr Zhang will be there.

This raises questions about the level of concern the firm might have about potential violence outside the exchange or near its executives.

Investors won't queue up outside the exchange or banks to get their hands on paper receipts because Alibaba has decided to go paperless for this listing - the first time a firm has done so in Hong Kong. Some have said this is to avoid the risk of protestors attacking investors who might be out on the streets.


A boost for Hong Kong?

Alibaba's listing is likely to distract from the violence playing out on the streets, for a few days at least.

It may also reassure investors that if a giant such as Alibaba is willing to take the risk and list its shares in Hong Kong, the city's reputation as a financial hub must still be intact.

Weijian Shan, the man often described as Asia's private equity "king", told me the Hong Kong Stock Exchange was the only "bright spot" in an economy currently beset by violent turmoil and recession.

A quick guide to the Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong in first recession for a decade

How protests pushed HK's economy to the brink

More than two hundred Chinese companies are listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, making up almost half of the exchange's value.

Their value is unlikely to be affected by the day-to-day protests, although negative sentiment from the political crisis no doubt filters through to the stock market in moments of heightened tension.

Still, concerns over Hong Kong's reputation should be taken seriously - and it's not just because of the unrest.

Increasingly, there's a perception in the business community that Beijing calls the shots in Hong Kong.

This week, Chinese state media came out strongly against a decision by Hong Kong's courts that the anti-mask ban was unconstitutional, raising fears that Beijing will wade in even further.

This potentially threatens the independence of Hong Kong's judiciary, the sole reason international companies come to the city and list there.

Hong Kong's courts are - for now at least - still independent from China's. The more that fades, the more Hong Kong's future as an international financial centre is diminished - whether companies like Alibaba choose to list there or not.


Back to its roots

Against a complicated political backdrop, Alibaba has long expressed a desire to bring the company "home" to Hong Kong.

It had hoped to list its shares there in 2014, when the firm first went public. But the city's listing rules at the time meant it made more sense for the company to float in New York.

An investor in Alibaba's US shares told me that the Hong Kong listing was a "genius move", because it will allow mainland Chinese investors to buy shares in a company they know well.

"Expect the shares to pop on the first day of trade," says the investor, who didn't want to be named.

"Mainland Chinese investors will want to show their support for a company they see as one of their own."

Even though Alibaba has no shortage of cash, the Hong Kong listing could help to raise money for future challenges, especially in the US.

"Because of the US-China trade war, there's more scrutiny of Chinese companies listed in the US," he says.

"If Alibaba raises this cash in Hong Kong, it allows them to potentially delist their shares in the US if they run into any trouble with US authorities in the future over any potential national security concerns."

For now, Alibaba says there are no plans to delist its shares in the US.

"The New York Stock Exchange is the primary listing venue" an Alibaba spokesperson told me. "We will continue to be listed and traded on the New York Stock Exchange."

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