Alibaba files for IPO, which analysts say could raise as much as $20 billion

Correction: Correction: This story has been updated to correct Alibaba’s sales attributed to mobile users. Mobile users comprised nearly 20 percent of Alibaba’s total sales for the last three months of 2013, not the entire year.

The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba filed to sell stock to the public Tuesday, the first step inwhat many expect to be one of the largest IPOs in U.S. history.

Alibaba said it would raise $1 billion, but analysts expect the company’s haul to be much bigger, potentially $20 billion. That would surpass Facebook’s 2012 IPO, which raised $16 billion and ranks as the largest tech IPO in history.

Alibaba’s long-awaited Securities and Exchange Commission filing gave a rare view into the massive firm, which is largely unknown in the United States. It sells everything from designer dresses to farm machinery, processes billions in mobile payments and runs its own cloud computing platform.

“It’s the biggest e-commerce growth story in the world,” said Eugene Munster, an equity research analyst at Piper Jaffray. “That’s why investors are so excited to get involved.”

The retailer dominates online commerce in China through its flagship Web site Alibaba.com and a variety of subsidiaries, including Taobao, its online marketplace, and Tmall, an upscale version of Taobao for luxury brands. The company also runs a payment system called Alipay, similar to PayPal, that processed $519 billion in payments in the nine months ended in December 2013.

The retailer’s size makes it a potential competitor to Amazon, eBay and other online companies. It reported revenue of $5.6 billion in the year that ended in March and earned a profit of $1.4 billion during that period.

Alibaba has 231 million active users in China and 8 million active sellers, who spent a combined $248 billion last year. It makes most of its money from ads, commissions from sellers and membership fees.

The company did not announce any plans to begin courting U.S. customers, noting in its more than 300-page filing that the Chinese market still has room to grow. Online shopping in China is expected to rise by more than 27 percent during the next two years, according to iResearch, a Chinese market research firm.

The IPO will take months to schedule as Alibaba executives and bankers court U.S. investors. It will be a closely watched process that will give U.S. investors a rare chance to bet on the growth of the Chinese economy.

Like many U.S. tech firms, Alibaba is turning its attention to the growing mobile market. Chinese shoppers are increasingly using their smartphones to make purchases. Mobile users comprised nearly 20 percent of Alibaba’s total sales for the last three months of 2013, compared with 7.4 percent in the same period the previous year. More than 76 percent of all mobile transactions in China take place on Alibaba’s mobile app. The company said it expects mobile users to eventually overtake desktop users.

“Emerging markets [like China] tend to have a higher use of mobile phones,” Munster said. Alibaba needs “to have an airtight mobile strategy because that’s where their consumers are.”

The company has been on an acquisition spree to build its mobile services, including buying stakes in AutoNavi, an online navigation company; Intime Retail, a Chinese department store operator; and Tango, a messaging app. But the company warned that it may not make money from those efforts soon.

Alibaba has faced complaints about fake goods on its Web sites, especially Taobao, after which the company said it stepped up its policing efforts. But it remains concerned about the “negative publicity” it has received about pirated items, according to the filing.

Alibaba did not say how many shares it would sell or what its offering price would be. But the deal is sure to be lucrative for Alibaba’s key shareholders. The company’s founder, Jack Ma, owns 9 percent of the company’s shares, and Joe Tsai, Alibaba’s vice chairman, owns 3.6 percent.

Yahoo and Japanese telecom company Softbank are also major shareholders. Yahoo, which owns a 22 percent stake in the company, is expected to sell 10 percent of its shares as part of an agreement with Alibaba. Japanese telecom Softbank owns 34.4 percent of the company’s shares.

Amrita Jayakumar covers federal government contracting for Capital Business, The Post's local business publication.
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