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Alibaba’s big data may pose problems for a US IPO

Alibaba.com's headquarters in Hangzhou, China
Thomas Lombard | Wikipedia
Alibaba.com's headquarters in Hangzhou, China

Concerns surrounding economically-sensitive 'big data' gleaned from user transactions on Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's businesses may delay the company's planned U.S. listing, banking sources told CNBC this week, leading some to speculate that Beijing may even exert pressure on the company to list in Hong Kong.

Alibaba wants to arrange its initial public offering – which reportedly could value the company at $70 billion or more – to allow the company's founders to retain control, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.

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But talks with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange broke off when the two sides couldn't reach agreement on that structure, according to the newspaper. Alibaba is now moving toward listing its shares in the U.S., people familiar with the matter said. The company's debut would be the largest technology IPO since Facebook's last year, which raised $16 billion.

But possible resistance from China's government – who may express reservations over the level of U.S. regulatory scrutiny paid to economically-sensitive data that can be 'mined' from the transactions on the company's 'e-tail' sites – may mean a U.S. listing could add another layer of complexity, possibly delaying the offering.

"Ideally, the government would want Alibaba listed in Shanghai," said a Hong Kong-based investment banker. "But there's zero state-ownership of their shares," which may limit the government's ability to influence the outcome. "This is not a state-owned enterprise but a private company."

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David Riedel, President and Founder of Riedel Research Group told CNBC on Friday, that Alibaba's U.S. listing may face headwinds but won't be abandoned altogether.

"You could certainly make that argument but I'm not sure you'd get very far with it," Riedel said. "You can make the same argument about Baidu for example, which has so much of the search history and of course it's listed here in the U.S."

China's e-commerce market is booming and has grown by 120 percent a year since 2003, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. The number of Chinese online shoppers has surged to 250 million, more than doubling in three years, The Economist reported in March, helping boost productivity rates in the broader retail sector.

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Highlighting the firm's growing centrality, William C. Kirby, T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University, has described Alibaba as "a private company that has done more for China's national economy than most state-owned enterprises."

Investment bankers agree: "It is a fascinating and strategic company," Russell Julius, Head of Banking, Asia-Pacific at HSBC told CNBC on Thursday. "They have been brilliant in building up their dominant market share in China. Obviously, discussions are at a very delicate stage and I can't comment on whether they will go to the U.S. or to Hong Kong."

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