Alibaba Group, the king of e-commerce in China, is dangling a deal that could turn into one of the biggest IPOs in history.
In a long-awaited move Tuesday, Alibaba filed for an initial public offering of stock in the U.S. that could surpass the $16 billion that Facebook and its early investors raised in the social networking company's IPO two years ago.
Alibaba's paperwork says it will raise at least $1 billion, but finance professionals believe that is a notional figure to get the IPO process rolling and say that the Chinese company's ambitions for the share sale are much richer.
"This is going to be the granddaddy of all IPOs," predicted Sam Hamedah, CEO of PrivCo, which researches privately held corporations.
Although it's not well-known in the United States, Alibaba is an e-commerce powerhouse that makes more money than Amazon.com and eBay combined. It has helped drive the rise of e-commerce in China, a transformation that has given millions of households greater access to clothes, books and consumer electronics in a society that in the 1980s still required ration tickets for some supermarket items.
Shopping online has become even more popular as smartphones give more Chinese easy access to a computer. Alibaba's launch of an online payment system, Alipay, filled the gap for the shoppers who lacked credit cards. Still growing at an explosive rate, online shopping is forecast by consulting firm McKinsey to triple from 2011 levels to $400 billion a year by 2015.
Alibaba is also expanding at a rapid clip as its network of online services, including Taobao, Tmall and Alipay mine a Chinese Internet market that already has 618 million Web surfers, roughly twice the size of the U.S. population. Taobao is an online shopping bazaar similar to eBay while Tmall serves as an online outlet for brands sold by major retailers.
Last year, 231 million customers bought $248 billion in merchandise on Alibaba's e-commerce sites, according to the IPO documents. About $37 billion, or 15%, of that was through mobile devices.
For now, Alibaba isn't specifying how much stock will be sold in the IPO, or setting a price range or saying which U.S. exchange its stock will trade on. Those details will emerge as the IPO progresses. The process is likely to take three to four months before Alibaba's shares begin trading.
One of the reasons Alibaba may set a new IPO fundraising bar is because one of its major shareholders, Yahoo!, is supposed to sell about 208 million shares, too.
Credit and debit card processor Visa holds the record for the richest IPO in the U.S. at nearly $18 billion. State-owned Agricultural Bank of China's IPO in 2010 on exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai is the world's biggest at $22 billion in final proceeds.
Most of Alibaba is currently owned by four shareholders: Japan's SoftBank Corp., with a 34% stake; Yahoo!, with 23%; former CEO and co-founder Jack Ma with 8.9%; and vice chairman and co-founder Joseph Tsai with 3.6%.
Alibaba didn't choose an optimal time to go public. Several Internet company stocks that soared last year amid high hopes have plummeted this year as investors reassess their prospects. Twitter has been among the hardest hit. Since hitting a peak of $74.73 late last year, the company's shares have lost more than half their value. They closed Tuesday at $31.85, just slightly above their $26 IPO price.
Despite the skittish conditions for Internet stocks, most analysts expect Alibaba's IPO to bring in at least $10 billion. Hamadeh predicts the IPO shares will be sold at a price that gives Alibaba a market value of $195 billion. That would eclipse Facebook's current market value of $150 billion.
The IPO casts a spotlight on Alibaba's extraordinary rise, which has drawn comparisons with some of Silicon Valley's famous success stories.
The company was started in 1999 with just $60,000 in the apartment of Jack Ma, a former English school teacher with no previous experience in business or technology.
Alibaba has since blossomed, echoing China's growing economic might, with earnings of $2.9 billion through the first nine months of its last fiscal year ending in March. That topped the combined earnings of $2.4 billion posted for the same April-December stretch by eBay and Amazon.
With Ma at the helm, Alibaba rebuffed a competitive threat after eBay entered China in 2002 and also lined up a Yahoo! investment that fortified the Chinese company's position. Ebay abandoned the Chinese market in 2006.
Ma, 49, stepped down as Alibaba's CEO a year ago when he was succeeded by Jonathan Lu. But Ma remains Alibaba's executive chairman and still shapes the company's strategy and entertains customers and employees with songs and jokes when he takes the stage at the company's annual "Alifest." He is also a multibillionaire, based on his stake in the company.
Alibaba's success has also provided a financial crutch for Yahoo!, whose stake in the company is the main reason Yahoo!'s stock price has more than doubled in the past two years.
As big as Alibaba has become in e-commerce, its leadership is far from secure because China's consumers have proven to be extremely fickle as they hop from one trendy service to the next, said Forrester Research analyst Kelland Willis.
She thinks WeChat, a mobile messaging service owned by Alibaba rival Tencent, is already emerging as a potentially formidable threat.
"Consumer behavior could change on a dime," Willis said.
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