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It’s time to go public for China’s startup founders: Jack Ma

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group, attends the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland on Jan 23, 2019. [Photo/VCG]. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

HONG KONG, Jul 23, 2020, Bloomberg. Jack Ma’s timing is frequently spot-on. Now, he’s signalling to a host of Chinese startups it’s time to race ahead with multibillion-dollar stock sales before the coronavirus pandemic or trade war does more damage to the global economy, The Business Times reported.

Ant Group, Mr Ma’s financial services juggernaut, is seeking to raise about US$10 billion in Hong Kong and potentially more in Shanghai for its initial public offering (IPO). That decision is likely to encourage smaller brethren to accelerate their own public debuts, catching markets at multi-year peaks and avoiding longer-term uncertainty. China has birthed more than a hundred startups valued at US$1 billion or more in recent years, led by TikTok-parent ByteDance and ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing.

“The economy has its own timeline. Right now liquidity is available, but the Chinese and global economies are fraught with risk,” argues Brock Silvers, chief investment officer for Adamas Asset Management in Hong Kong. “Everyone thus wants to strike now, while the iron is hot.”

Chinese companies have raised US$36 billion of share sales this year in Hong Kong alone and Ant’s IPO is almost certain to push that total past US$45 billion. That raises questions over whether the greater China market is deep enough to sustain a flood of listings. Like a summer Hollywood blockbuster steamrolling smaller films, Ant’s enormous undertaking threatens to overshadow even the largest would-be debutantes.

Bankers and investors say there’s no lack of eager buyers, at least for now. Ant is riding a swell of interest in the world’s No 2 economy, which has sprung back faster than anticipated from the pandemic. A series of spectacular summer debuts – chipmaker Semiconductor Manufacturing International tripled on opening day – demonstrate there’s ample money chasing outsized returns in an era of highly volatile markets.

At least a dozen corporations are seeking to tap the well: Chinese search leader Baidu and Ctrip are said to be exploring secondary listings in Hong Kong. ByteDance, owner of viral video sensation TikTok, is a possible contender. Local media report Didi is about to kickstart its own IPO process in Hong Kong, though a spokesperson denied that on Wednesday. UBS estimates 42 US-traded Chinese firms are qualified to list in Hong Kong over the next 12 months and could raise an estimated US$27 billion assuming a 5 per cent float.

Ant will be the largest of that cohort, a potentially US$200 billion-plus first-timer that’s likely to dwarf all peers apart from major backer Alibaba Group Holding and arch-foe Tencent Holdings. Depending on when Ant floats – it could be a matter of months if everything goes smoothly – some may seek to get in ahead of the financial services titan or make sure they debut well after liquidity loosens again.

“With China being the only major economy to offer clear growth prospects, the appetite for China related securities will only increase,” said Andy Mok, senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization. “Despite the large size of the Ant IPO, the pool of liquidity seeking acceptable returns is even larger.”

Hong Kong and Shanghai have become red-hot IPO destinations in 2020, hosting household names from JD.com to SMIC in a span of months. China’s biggest corporations are selling stock closer to home after a proposed US bill threatened to force its companies to delist from New York by imposing stricter disclosure requirements – a prospect that looks increasingly plausible as the Trump administration amps up action against its geopolitical rival. That will only contribute to the impending deluge.

Ant’s float will create other unwelcome ripple effects. Share sales from Meituan, JD.com and Netease have all strained available capital and triggered consequent spikes in the Hong Kong dollar. Demand for the currency had already begun to swell on Tuesday – before Ant has even had a chance to pin down a timeframe.

“There could be liquidity pressure in the short term,” said Julia Pan, a Shanghai-based analyst with UOB Kay Hian. “It’s likely for example that people will sell some of their shares in Alibaba to buy Ant.”

There’re signs the city may not be fully equipped to handle the deluge. Since last year’s US$13 billion secondary listing, Alibaba’s Hong Kong stock has drawn just a fraction of the trading activity it typically generates in New York, partly due to a local stamp duty that curbs high frequency trading. While the city led the world in listings last year, volume on the exchange is just about a quarter of its US peers in dollar terms.

Longer term, a growing roster of bona fide tech giants can only benefit the city’s exchange, diversifying its investment base while finally helping it fulfill its ambition of becoming the go-to destination for a new generation of technology enterprises. The Hong Kong exchange is now pushing out a series of efforts to increase liquidity and turnover.

“While there might be liquidity pressure in the short term when Ant lists, it’s a good thing for Hong Kong in the longer run,” said Hong Kong-based Bernstein analyst David Dai.

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