Hong Kong - Hong Kong’s political unrest is posing a dilemma for Alibaba Group Holding Ltd on the timing of its planned $15 billion listing in the city, with sources saying China’s biggest e-commerce company is now considering several timetables. New York-listed Alibaba was most likely to launch the offer - potentially the world’s biggest of the year - as early as the third quarter, sources have said, and late August, after its first-quarter earnings, was widely viewed as the most likely window. In preparation for the giant offer, bankers advising other large listings in Hong Kong have been careful to avoid planning their launches around that period, fearing that a clash of timing would crowd out their offerings. But not a word was mentioned by Alibaba on the Hong Kong listing when it released estimate-beating earnings on Thursday nor did the offer come up in the hour-long discussion with analysts after the results. Two sources involved in the deal and one other briefed on Alibaba’s discussions described the company’s thinking on the deal as “fluid” and said Alibaba was considering several timetables.
Alibaba declined to comment. The Hong Kong listing deal was estimated at up to $20 billion, but is more likely, according to sources close to the deal, to raise between $10-$15 billion. The listing was always expected to be a complex affair because of China’s tight control of cross-border share trading, but Hong Kong’s unrest has taken the complexity several notches higher. More than 10 weeks of confrontations between police and pro-democracy protesters have plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and presented President Xi Jinping with his biggest popular challenge since taking power in 2012. Tear gas has been used frequently by police while more than 700 people have been arrested. This week protesters effectively closed the city’s airport on two successive days, disrupting tens of thousands of travellers and posing a practical problem to any company considering launching a deal roadshow in Hong Kong. Under the circumstances, when Alibaba lists becomes crucial as it sends a signal to the rest of the world on the state of Hong Kong as a business and financial centre and provides a window into China’s reading of the situation. “How do you think Beijing feels about giving Hong Kong a $15 billion gift like this, right now?” asked one capital markets professional not involved in the Alibaba deal.
Alibaba’s deal must also overcome one other technical hurdle: it must gain the approval of the city’s listing committee, a 27-strong independent group of industry professionals whose consent is needed for all first-time share sales. The company has been in discussions with the committee but has not yet appeared before the group at one of its regular Thursday hearings for formal approval, according to three sources. So far only Credit Suisse and CICC, the Chinese investment bank, have been mandated for the mega-listing, sources said, although several other banks are jockeying for a role on the deal, they added. All are expected to be urging caution on the listing given the size of the deal and the political and market considerations. One senior banker not involved said it made no sense to move too quickly. “Why would Alibaba rush to kick it off?” he asked.