Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Hong Kong — Alibaba Group Holding rose 6.6% in its Hong Kong debut, fueling the ambitions of China’s largest internet company as well as an Asian city rocked by violent anti-government protests.

Chair Daniel Zhang, lieutenants wearing Alibaba lapel pins, and Hong Kong dignitaries were on hand to strike the opening gong on Tuesday at a celebration of the city’s biggest stock listing in 2019. The company presented a Chinese-style painting to the exchange — a souvenir to go with the showy coming-out party.

The Chinese e-commerce giant’s shares rose to HK$187.60, compared to a HK$176 issuance price. They traded under the code 9988 — auspicious numbers in Chinese culture that purportedly signify prosperity.

Asia’s most valuable corporation raised about $11bn in the financial hub’s largest issuance of stock since 2010, a triumph for a stock exchange that, over the years, has lost many of China’s brightest tech stars to US rivals.

Now, the blockbuster debut by one of China’s most successful companies signals confidence in Hong Kong’s future even as pro-democracy protests grip the city, earning Alibaba goodwill in Beijing. It makes it easier for investors in the mainland to buy and sell Alibaba shares, which are primarily listed in New York.

It’s also a homecoming for Alibaba, whose decision to hold its $25bn initial public offering (IPO) five years ago in New York dealt a blow to Hong Kong’s ambitions. Listing closer to home has been a long-time dream of billionaire co-founder Jack Ma. More broadly, his company has been trying to sustain growth at a time the engines of China’s economy are sputtering. Like fellow internet giant Tencent (in which Naspers has a more than 30% stake), Alibaba’s exploring new markets as China clashes with the US over everything from trade and technology to investment.

The Chinese company’s decision to forge ahead despite a recent escalation in protest-related violence pleased officials

“We came home. We came back to list in Hong Kong,” Zhang said to applause. “It helped make up for our regret five years ago.”

A marquee name like Alibaba’s could draw investors and boost trading liquidity for the Hong Kong stock exchange, which just saw its biggest profit slump in more than three years following a failed bid to buy its London counterpart in September. Efforts to court Alibaba emanated from the very top, with Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam herself lobbying Ma.

The Chinese company’s decision to forge ahead despite a recent escalation in protest-related violence pleased officials trying to persuade the world that the troubled city still has a future as a financial hub. Alibaba’s sale could tempt Chinese tech unicorns from Didi Chuxing to ByteDance to opt for Hong Kong over the US if they eventually go public.

“Alibaba will be the leading light for bringing more companies in,” Andrew Sullivan, a director at Pearl Bridge Partners, told Bloomberg Television. “You may see some new money being allocated. The keen competitor is going to be Tencent, which has historically traded at a premium.”

The new funds now help Alibaba finance a costly war against homegrown rivals nipping at its heels. It could swell the company’s cash pile to about $44bn, more than any other internet company and roughly double that of arch-rival Tencent.

The capital could bankroll competition with Tencent and Baidu in cloud computing and entertainment, with Meituan-Dianping in food delivery and travel, and with everyone in terms of investing in promising start-ups that yield technology, talent or market share. And it could divert investor cash from those rivals — Alibaba is now the largest corporation to be listed in Hong Kong, pipping Tencent for the title.

Demand for Alibaba’s stock surpassed supply by several times and more shares were allocated to small investors. It’s a feather in the cap for Zhang, who took over as chair from Ma in September. The former accountant is now spearheading the company’s expansion beyond Asia as well as into adjacent business lines from cloud computing to entertainment, logistics and physical retail.

Alibaba could put the capital to work investing in new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), or fast-expanding affiliates such as Ant Financial. Courting investors closer to home also serves as a buffer of sorts should US-Chinese tensions worsen. Already, US lawmakers such as senator Marco Rubio are agitating for measures to curb investment flows to Chinese companies, including the extreme option of tossing US-listed firms off American bourses.

Bloomberg