Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) reportedly is getting a Hong Kong listing. Multiple reports suggest the company is planning to sell $20 billion worth of Alibaba stock on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. A key question, with the BABA stock price down about 18% from early May highs, is “Why now?”.
As with so much when it comes to Alibaba stock, bulls and bears likely will answer the question very differently. Bulls see the company raising capital for its myriad initiatives — and potentially raising the profile of BABA stock. Bears wonder why the company needs the cash and why it needs to do such a deal now.
BABA has long been a battleground stock. The Hong Kong listing likely will only harden both sides.
The Case for the Alibaba Stock Offering
There are two broad benefits to the cross-listing. One, Alibaba’s plan to list on the Hong Kong exchange could — and maybe should — drive the BABA stock price higher.
Hong Kong-listed shares can be owned directly by Chinese investors. Those investors might see Alibaba more favorably than their foreign counterparts. And if Alibaba stock rises on the Hong Kong exchange, its New York listing might do the same, as arbitrageurs buy cheaper New York-listed shares.
That said, those arbitrageurs also would sell the Hong Kong-listed shares, potentially mitigating some of the effects of increased demand. And the two shares would not be the same: BABA stock does not offer direct ownership of the company. Rather, ‘shareholders’ own a stake in a VIE (variable interest entity) in the Cayman Islands.
That VIE has a contractual right to Alibaba profits — but that’s not the same thing as actually owning shares of Alibaba itself. As such, it would seem almost certain that Alibaba shares in New York will trade at a consistent, if modest, discount to the Hong Kong-listed shares to account for the VIE-related risk.
Still, details aside, a second listing could increase demand for Alibaba stock, particularly among China’s retail investors. Smaller investors control 35% of the Chinese market, against an 8% share in the U.S. And the pending Alibaba stock split likely allows those Chinese retail investors to afford smaller positions. There is a case that BABA stock should get a bump from the two listings.
The second goal, apparently, is to raise capital. Alibaba’s New York IPO was the largest in history, raising $25 billion. Alibaba reportedly will bring in another $20 billion this time around. Those funds can be used for more acquisitions; building out the cloud business; or further investing behind the business.
That in turn would seem to signal a longer-term rise in Alibaba stock, assuming the funds are invested well.
The Case Against the Offering
So BABA bulls no doubt see the new listing as good news. Indeed, the BABA stock price has risen modestly of late, though a stronger broad market likely plays a role as well.
But for Alibaba skeptics, the offering seems curious. That’s particularly true for investors who question the company’s accounting, The first question is why, exactly, Alibaba needs another $20 billion. The company closed fiscal 2019 (ending March 31) with $28.3 billion in cash on its balance sheet. Alibaba owns another $24 billion or so in investment securities (not including its investments in private companies). That $44 billion war chest sits against total debt of less than $9 billion.
To be sure, Alibaba does have places to spend its cash. The company’s operations beyond core commerce last year — cloud computing, digital media and entertainment, and its “innovation initiatives” — all posted losses last year as Alibaba invested in future growth. In cloud, Alibaba is trying to replicate the success of Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). Rival JD.com (NASDAQ:JD) is spending heavily on its supply chain.
But operating losses for those segments totaled a little over $5 billion. Even with those losses, free cash flow was somewhere in the range of $15 billion, even including payments for copyrights and other intangible assets.
For those who doubt Alibaba, the offering (which reportedly will be of new shares) makes little sense. Alibaba, if its financials are accurate, has more than enough cash to fund even aggressive investments in its new initiatives. Unless there’s a big acquisition planned, Alibaba is diluting its shareholders for money it doesn’t seem to need.
Is the BABA Stock Price Too Low?
Alibaba stock is down 23% from July 2018 highs. Yet it will likely price those shares at a discount to the current U.S.-listed price (as is usually the case with these offerings). That in turn means Alibaba shareholders will see their ownership diluted at a price well below their view of the stock’s intrinsic value. (Presumably, all Alibaba shareholders, outside of passive managers, believe the stock is undervalued at the moment.)
It’s possible the dilution will be worth it. Perhaps Alibaba has a big deal in mind. It needs to compete against JD.com and Tencent Holdings (OTCMKTS:TCEHY) and, perhaps, the more cash the better. A wider reach for the stock — and direct ownership, as opposed to the U.S.-based VIE structure — can help as well.
But the capital raise only adds to the doubts surrounding BABA stock as well. And while short interest here is likely somewhat overstated (there are no doubt arbitrage traders who are long Altaba (NASDAQ:AABA) and short BABA), short sellers likely will see the offering as confirming their thesis, not disproving it.
In short, the beauty of the listing, like Alibaba stock, is in the eye of the beholder. Bulls see more shareholders, more cash, and a higher BABA stock price. Bears see another questionable move … and maybe even another red flag. Time will tell which side has it right.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.