Hong Kong rethinks rules after Alibaba IPO loss

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

HONG KONG (AP) — Alibaba's choice of New York over Hong Kong for its blockbuster IPO was a blow for the Chinese financial center. Now, the city's stock market is starting to rethink rules that stopped it from accommodating the Chinese e-commerce giant's unique management setup.

As China's leading financial center with its own currency and separate Western-style legal system, Hong Kong has been the traditional first choice for Chinese enterprises going public outside the mainland.

But Alibaba settled earlier this year on New York for its stock market listing after Hong Kong refused to make an exception for the company's partnership system in which a small group of company insiders nominate the majority of the board of directors without owning a controlling stake.

The initial public offering may raise more than $24 billion, making it the biggest ever. Trading of Alibaba shares is expected to begin in New York later this week.

Executives at Hangzhou, China-based Alibaba said its partnership system was necessary for preserving the company's innovative culture, but Hong Kong's listing committee said it would go against the exchange's "one share, one vote" principle that's aimed at treating all investors equally.

Alibaba found a more receptive welcome in the United States, where it's common for big companies including tech giants such as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn to have dual-class share structures that empower one shareholder or a group of shareholders over others.

Other Chinese tech firms that have had recently listed in the U.S., including web search company Baidu and online retailer, have dual classes of stock.

"People say that Hong Kong lost Alibaba but to me, I think Alibaba missed this great opportunity to list in Hong Kong. It's very regrettable," founder Jack Ma told reporters Monday in the southern Chinese financial center, the latest stop on the company's global roadshow for the share sale.

Ma chalked the loss up to poor timing, preparation or communications but stressed there were no hard feelings.

He said the company would "continue to love Hong Kong" and that the city "shouldn't change its principles just for one company."

The loss of Alibaba's IPO led to some hand-wringing in Hong Kong financial circles over whether the rules in Asia's second biggest stock exchange should be changed to allow new shareholding structures.

"The day for that debate has finally come," Charles Li, CEO of stock exchange operator Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Ltd., said on his blog after the bourse unveiled a "concept paper" at the end of August to gather views from the public on "weighted voting rights."

Hong Kong's stock exchange earns some of its profit from listing charges, which include an initial fee of up to $84,000 and annual fees of up to $153,000. Listing-related revenue rose 13 percent in the first half of the year as more companies went public compared with last year.

The paper follows discussions among the exchange, finance industry executives and the city's securities regulator that began nearly 15 months before, said Li.

"Let's all be frank, it would have been nice if this could have been released earlier," he wrote.

Some argue that new rules are needed to avoid losing other blockbuster IPOs in the future. Others say the current framework is necessary to prevent some investors from having a disproportionate say in running companies.

David Graham, Hong Kong Exchange's chief regulatory officer and head of listing, stressed that the decision to explore changes was not triggered by the loss of Alibaba's IPO and that the debate started before the failed IPO talks.

"I can confirm this is not in response to an individual company," he told reporters. "We were already a long way down this process." He said the exchange has not taken any position for or against changes.

Feedback on the paper is due by Nov. 30, and the exchange may then launch a public consultation depending on the responses received.