Long-term Investing

Why the Alibaba IPO is more important than Twitter's

Joel Dreyfuss, Special to CNBC.com
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

On Friday, Twitter's management team goes on the road to promote its highly anticipated Nov. 15 listing on the New York Stock Exchange. But the 8-year-old Internet messaging company's long-awaited IPO is already being overshadowed by a bigger public offering that hasn't yet been formally announced.

Sometime after Twitter's moment in the Wall Street spotlight,it's expected billionaire Jack Ma will step to the podium in New York to ring the bell heralding his Alibaba Group Holding's listing in New York, the biggest U.S. IPO for a Chinese technology company, and one that dwarfs Twitter in size, revenue—and significance. "Alibaba is a one-time thing," said Benjamin Joffe, an angel investor and founder of Asia-focused consultancy Plus8Star in Beijing. "How often do you list a $100 billion company?"

(Read more: Alibaba gets clearance to list in the US)

Alibaba, an e-commerce platform in mainland China that includes features of Amazon, eBay and hosting sites for small businesses, could reach revenue of $5 billion this year and $1 billion in profits. Alibaba CEO Jonathan Lu said recently the company expects to triple the volume of transactions on its marketplaces to about 3 trillion yuan ($490 billion) by 2016, overtaking Wal-Mart as the world's biggest retail network. Analysts have estimated it will raise $10 billion to $15 billion in its IPO that should happen in the first quarter of next year and value Alibaba at as much as $100 billion. That would make it the biggest IPO since Facebook's debut last year.

By contrast, Twitter is looking to raise $1 billion at a valuation of $10 billion to $15 billion. Twitter's first disclosure on the way to an IPO reported $422 million in revenue through Sept. 30, up 106 percent—and a net loss of $134 million, also up 89 percent.

(Read more: Twitter quits dog IPO)

Battle of the exchanges

Alibaba's IPO will be the culmination of a fierce behind-the-scenes battle among the world's stock markets for the right to take the Chinese e-commerce giant public. Whether Alibaba goes with the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq, stock markets in London and Hong Kong will lose out on an IPO that could value Alibaba at $100 billion, raise as much as $20 billion, and deliver millions of dollars in fees to bankers, brokers, and attorneys. "It's a pretty competitive landscape out there," conceded Alistair Walmsley, head of primary markets at the London Stock Exchange Group, which has not been in the running for the Alibaba listing.

Alibaba IPO is a one-time thing. ... How often do you list a $100 billion company?
Benjamin Joffe
Angel investor and founder of Plus8Star

But New York may get the coveted prize. Alibaba decided not to go with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange after it rejected the Internet company's unusual governance structure, which would keep management control of the company in the hands of a minority of 28 founders and shareholders. "Our overarching objective is to maintain our culture," Alibaba Executive Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai wrote in a recent blog posting.

"Alibaba's decision to turn outside of Asia is notable," said Benny Pang, managing partner of the Hong Kong office of Loeb & Loeb, an international law firm long involved with Chinese IPOs. "For a Chinese company to go offshore, the first choice is going to be Hong Kong," he noted, because of language issues, compliance costs and proximity."

Pang admits a listing in New York would give Alibaba a lot of visability. "A major attraction for the Chinese Internet giant is the robust U.S. market, and the sheer size and depth of the U.S. exchanges," noted Kathleen Smith, principal of Renaissance Capital, an international IPO market research firm that launched the Renaissance IPO ETF last week on the NYSE Arca exchange.

(Read more: Alibaba gets clearance to list in the U.S.)

Faber Report: Yahoo's ownership of Alibaba

In the first three-quarters of 2013, companies raised $36.5 billion in 104 deals on New York Euronext. By contrast, Nasdaq OMX trailed with $11.3 billion in 87 IPOs. Hot on its heels was the London Stock Exchange and its smaller-cap AIM market, where 64 companies raised $7.85 billion. It was followed by the Hong Kong exchange, where companies raised $7.5 billion in IPOs in the first nine months of this year, up 30 percent from the same period in 2012.

In the Big Apple, it's yet to be seen if the NYSE will sweep its archrival. This month it scored a big win when Twitter announced it would list on its exchange instead of Nasdaq, the traditional home of tech start-ups. Tech companies have cooled on Nasdaq since the botched launch of Facebook last year. In May, the SEC fined that exchange $10 million for bungling the social network's stock offering. Just three months later, another technical glitch halted Nasdaq trading. A listing by Alibaba on Nasdaq would do much to burnish the exchange's image.

So far, Alibaba has been silent on any plans to go public. A spokesman for the company told CNBC that no underwriters have been hired, and that no listing location has been chosen.

China's tech IPOs line up

Alibaba's IPO is an important breakthrough for Chinese companies, which have been shunned by foreign investors since a series of accounting scandals broke in 2010. "Up to 2010, everybody wanted them," said attorney Mitchell Nussbaum, head of capital markets and Asia for Loeb & Loeb. "It went cold on them very, very quickly." But Alibaba's association with Yahoo, which holds 24 percent of its shares, has given the e-commerce giant transparency that many other Chinese companies can only envy.

NYSE to test system before Twitter IPO

In figures released by Yahoo, Alibaba's revenue surged 60 percent to $1.73 billion in the second quarter and net income more than doubled to $707 million. Alibaba is a different category, said Nussbaum. "Alibaba is a big company. Everybody's going to do it." A successful IPO could open the door for other Chinese tech companies to list in America—i.e., Sogou, a search engine leader in mobile; Vancl, an online fashion retailer, and UCWeb, a popular mobile browser.

Alibaba's IPO would also be a major Chinese play for investors who want to get in on the booming Chinese e-retailing marketplace. The company has announced plans to revolutionize China's retail industry investing $16 billion in logistics and support by 2020 to open up the country's vast interior and bring hundreds of millions of potential new customers online. Online retail sales in China are expected to triple to more than $360 billion by 2015, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group. China already has 193 million online shoppers, more than the 170 million in the U.S.

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This month two other Chinese tech companies will be testing U.S. investor appetite for the Chinese Internet sector when they go public on the NYSE. Qunar, the Baidu subsidiary that is a Kayak.com-inspired travel search site, plans an $117 million offering; and 58.com, the Craigslist of China has announced a $154 million deal.

"The bottom line is that Chinese entrepreneurs feel investors in the U.S. have a better understanding of their business," said Smith. "They believe they can get a better valuation as a result."

Ultimately, the success of Alibaba's IPO will depend on how the stock is priced, says Joffe. He says IPOs are often judged by the public and the media on whether the price goes up after the IPO. "If the underwriters decide not to optimize the valuation, they can create a 'successful' story," he said. "But the founders leave money on the table." At the scale of this IPO, investors may conclude they can afford it.

—By Joel Dreyfuss, Special to CNBC.com