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Alibaba files for $1 billion IPO in US

Publication Date : 08-05-2014


Founded in a Hangzhou apartment in Zhejiang province 15 years ago, Jack Ma's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd has grown into a monster conglomerate, dominating one of China's most dynamic economic sectors: e-commerce.

That domination will likely continue over the next few years, despite rising challenges from local rivals, as Alibaba filed on Wednesday for what could end up being the biggest initial public offering ever seen in the United States.

The huge pile of cash it is expected to raise is likely to help Alibaba find more new growth points as its e-commerce-based business is transformed into a competitive digital platform covering an increasingly broad array of Internet services.

Alibaba's regulatory filing gave a $1 billion placeholder value for the offering, but the actual amount is expected to be far higher, possibly topping the $19.65 billion raised by Visa Inc's offering in 2008, data compiled by Bloomberg showed.

Alibaba neither specified the number or price of shares it will offer nor gave a proposed IPO date. It has not revealed whether the IPO will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq.

But analysts pointed out that the offering is likely to value Alibaba between $150 billion and $250 billion, which means it could be valued as low as social media king Facebook Inc or as high as global retailer giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

No matter how much it raises, the massive online market founded by a former English teacher, 49-year-old Ma, already was the world's largest e-commerce player in 2013.

Its online marketplaces-Taobao Marketplace, Tmall and Juhuasuan-generated a combined gross merchandise volume of 1.542 trillion yuan ($248 billion) from 231 million active buyers and 8 million sellers in 2013.

Put another way, Alibaba's online marketplaces accounted for 85.67 per cent of China's total online shopping in 2013 and contributed to roughly 6.5 per cent of China's total retail volume the same year.

Alibaba cited in its filing that its advantage in a nation in which e-commerce is fast becoming a way of life is the fact that the online market hasn't fully been tapped. Just 45.8 per cent of China's population uses the Internet, lower than in the US or Japan, while only 49 per cent of those users shopped online.

Egidio Zarrella, a partner of clients and innovation consulting with KPMG China, agreed with the rosy e-commerce picture painted by Alibaba.

"Even though the Chinese e-commerce market is big at present, it still accounts for only roughly 8 per cent of the total retail market. In the next 10 years, it (the e-commerce market) will climb to 50 per cent of the total retail market," said Zarrella, adding that there is no need to doubt e-commerce potential in China.

But some analysts are skeptical about the group's potential for growth.

"Alibaba is by far the largest e-commerce company in China (and the world) by transaction volume. It will continue to stand its ground over the next couple of years but will be facing challenges from rivals who focus on better customer experience," said Bryan Wang, vice-president and principal analyst with US-based consultancy Forrester Research Inc.

According to Wang, compared with Amazon Inc, which is the largest e-commerce player in the US, Alibaba has much less control over product quality and customer service.

"Amazon is using a direct merchant plus marketplace model; so are some of Alibaba's local rivals," he said. "But Alibaba is 100 per cent using the marketplace model to attract merchants to open stores on its websites. It would be difficult for Alibaba to control all the third-party retailers online," Wang said, adding that he does see the revenue growth from Amazon-like Chinese rivals such as Inc.

Statistics from Beijing-based IT consultancy Analysys International showed that the market shares of both Alibaba's Tmall (48.4 per cent of China's business-to-consumer market) and Taobao Marketplace (95 per cent of China's consumer-to-consumer market) dropped slightly in the first quarter of this year compared with last year.

"I don't think Alibaba's domination will be challenged, but the rise of JD is unstoppable, especially after teaming up with Tencent Holdings Ltd's popular mobile messaging app WeChat," said Lin Wenbin, an analyst with Analysys International.

Lin said that more than 80 per cent of Alibaba's revenues were from its three retail marketplaces in 2013.

"With the group vigorously bolstering its reach with investments and acquisitions in China and abroad, Alibaba is expected to see more income from new sectors rather than purely e-commerce," he said, emphasising that the group may spend more money on online-to-offline businesses.

Jane Zhang, principal analyst with Gartner Inc, agreed, saying that most of the profit Alibaba has made on its online platforms are generated by the promotional fees and commissions it charges online merchants.

"The growth potential of this part is not going to be huge," she said. "Alibaba has made it clear that its mission is to make it easy to do business anywhere."

Zhang noted that with the money Alibaba is expected to raise from its IPO, it may be making more mergers and acquisitions in order to offer new services.

In the first four months of this year, Alibaba invested roughly 37 billion yuan in various companies, ranging from traditional media to video to owning department stores, becoming one of the most aggressive investors among China's big three Internet giants (the other two being Tencent and Baidu).


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