Alibaba, Awaken China Tech’s Long-Dormant IPO Machine

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Inc. have begun preparations for a trio of the year’s biggest Chinese debuts, heralding a wave of initial public offerings that promise to breathe new life into the struggling technology industry and Hong Kong’s stock market.

(Bloomberg) — Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Inc. have begun preparations for a trio of the year’s biggest Chinese debuts, heralding a wave of initial public offerings that promise to breathe new life into the struggling technology industry and Hong Kong’s stock market.

Cainiao Network Technology Co., Alibaba’s logistics arm, has kicked off discussions with banks for what may become the first of several IPOs by units of the e-commerce giant. On Thursday, two JD subsidiaries filed for first-time share sales in the city. Those three listings could raise about $5 billion between them, people familiar with the matter said.

The moves ignited hopes that Beijing — keen to resuscitate the world’s second-largest economy — is unfettering the private sector, allowing its biggest names to again pursue business and fundraising. Alibaba got the ball rolling this week by unveiling a six-way split that could usher several businesses — including Cainiao — onto public markets. That shake-up accomplishes Beijing’s broader aim of carving up tech titans and diminishing their influence over swaths of the economy — while unlocking potentially billions of dollars in value.

The revival of the Chinese tech IPO train ends a year-long drought that set in after regulators pulled the plug on Ant Group Co.’s record IPO. Once among the world’s most lucrative investment banking plays, the business dried up around 2021 when Beijing launched a blistering attack on internet sectors from online commerce to gaming, and tightened requirements for overseas listings.

“For the big techs, spinoffs no doubt can boost shareholder return, unlock the company value and ease regulatory concerns related to anti-trust,” said Willer Chen, senior analyst at Forsyth Barr Asia Ltd. “For more than a year or so, there has been very light demand on the deal side as market conditions were weak and investors disheartened. Now, the environment seems more friendly for valuation, which make sense for big tech subsidiaries that have a mature business and strong cash need to consider IPOs.”

A number of Chinese tech names have lodged or resubmitted their Hong Kong listing applications in just the past week: Lalatech Holdings Ltd., another tech-driven logistics giant in China, social media app Soulgate Inc. and fitness app Keep Inc. But there are bigger candidates: TikTok-owner ByteDance Ltd., ride-hailing giant Didi Global Inc. and social media player Xiaohongshu are potentially waiting in the wings.

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Alibaba’s announcement dovetailed with the return of its billionaire co-founder Jack Ma to China, as well as a series of official proclamations of support for the private sector. But many entrepreneurs and tech executives, traumatized by almost two years of relentless scrutiny, remain wary of Beijing’s intentions given the Xi Jinping administration’s distrust of powerful private firms. And there’s no guarantee that splitting up and spinning off actually propels businesses over the long haul.

But Alibaba and JD are adding fuel to a trend that’s emerged this year. Chinese firms have beaten their US and European peers early in the year on equity financing, buoyed by hopes about China’s post-Covid reopening while the rest of the world grapples with a potential recession.

It “indicates Beijing support for more buoyant capital market activities within China’s tech sector ahead,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Catherine Lim. “This should help lift overall market sentiment and anticipation for the listing of other mammoth companies within the sector.”

Tapping the IPO market is key for Chinese firms to bankroll expansion and expand their investor base. A wave of listings will also benefit Hong Kong, long the prime venue for Chinese debuts until Beijing clamped down. The city has only seen about $852 million raised through IPOs so far this year, a fraction of the $4.1 billion raised in the same period in 2022.

Cainiao, which means amateur or rookie in Chinese, is on track to hit the market first in part because it’s had a long track-record as a standalone operation that supports other parts of the Alibaba empire. While loss-making, the unit has consistently racked up double-digit revenue growth and is one of the company’s most recognizable brands, a nationwide logistics giant that helps ship upwards of a billion packages during the company’s signature Singles’ Day shopping festival.

In the longer term, Alibaba’s burgeoning cloud business is attracting outsized anticipation. Group Chief Executive Officer Daniel Zhang will personally take the helm, underscoring hopes that artificial intelligence will lay the foundation for future growth. That unit houses its Slack-like DingTalk app and provides cloud computing and data-processing services worldwide. Much like Amazon Web Services, it grew out of the need for massive computing power to support e-commerce, and now is a leading regional player in the business of providing cloud and data services to corporate clients.

For JD, it had in past years spun off divisions including JD Health International Inc., which raised almost $4 billion in a 2020 Hong Kong IPO. JD Technology, its fintech arm, may be looking to list in the Asian financial hub.

There’s been speculation also about Tencent Holdings Ltd. potentially taking a page out of Alibaba’s book. 

It runs China’s biggest mobile wallet and payments platform, alongside four main businesses with spinoff potential: gaming, cloud computing, WeChat and online content such as video. The company has already listed music and online literature.

“There are positive implications for the sector as investors get reminded that the Chinese Internet platforms are significantly undervalued, and these companies will continue to try to narrow the gap,” said Vey-Sern Ling, managing director at Union Bancaire Privee. “It also shows that the regulatory environment is supportive.”

–With assistance from Lin Zhu.

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