A caveat before I think out loud, quite possibly getting myself into a running battle I know I can’t win: I’m not a public market stock investor, I’ve never been one, and take the following ruminations at the price they’re offered: IE, free.
But this Alibaba stock debut doesn’t smell right to me, and it’s not the company- which is certainly a huge success story inside China, driven by a scrappy founder with a laudable (if manicured) personal narrative.
That said, Alibaba’s star turn smells of collective greed, with a hefty side of whistling past the graveyard.
I wouldn’t be writing this post if I didn’t have some knowledge around the deal, at least as it relates to the culture of access enjoyed by those with relationships to investment firms. I’ve missed a TON of great deals over my career, mainly due to my being a journalist (or acting like one, as it relates to holding stock) for a large percentage of my working life. But over the past few years I’ve carefully gotten into investing, mainly in early stage startups. I don’t look to invest in IPOs, but every so often, about twice a year, they get offered to me.
This is what happened with Alibaba. I was given the opportunity to – possibly – invest a small sum in Alibaba about a month ago. I figured it was a no-lose deal, so I said “sure” and I didn’t give it much more thought.
But as the IPO drew near, I reconsidered that decision. Not because I thought the stock was going to tank right after the IPO – I knew there was far too much money at stake, at least in the short term, for that to happen. No, I second guessed myself because I realized I honestly don’t understand the company, or the powers that control it. I pinged the fellow who had offered me the chance to invest, so as to recant my investment. But in the end, it didn’t matter. His fund didn’t end up getting an allocation of precious “at the open” stock anyway.
I can only imagine what it must have been like running that allocation, deciding who amongst all the wealthy, connected individuals and firms would get Alibaba stock at the opening price. It’d be like doling out rigged lottery tickets – everyone’s a winner! One thing I am sure of – it wasn’t a fair process, and I almost ended up benefitting from it by happenstance. So here’s why I am concerned about Alibaba, in no particular order:
1. Greed. The company was considered, by everyone I’ve spoken to, a “sure bet” that would “pop at the open” just like the Internet stocks of old (and it did!). And yet, everyone that I have spoken with also believes that Alibaba is an offering that encourages the kind of negative Wall Street behavior none of us really want to see happen again. The book closed early. The stock priced above its initial range and moved up by nearly 40% on its first day of trading. Financial institutions, uncertain if they were going to get the allocations they wanted, started currying favor and hustling and pleading and whining. There was a frenzy of money making activity going on, and it felt like…pure greed. Alibaba is the ultimate insider’s stock – pedestrian retail investors did not get access to shares at the opening price, and most likely they will be the sheep to whom the wolves of Wall Street quickly sell (if they haven’t already). Insiders – wealthy people with access to early distribution of IPO shares at the open, have already made their fast buck. And the ultimate insiders have made a huge killing: a consortium of big banks poured $8 billion into Alibaba this June at a $50 price, a quid pro quo if ever there was one for giving a Chinese company access to the US markets. This kind of behavior adds questionable value to our society. I don’t doubt that everyone who held pre-IPO or at-the-IPO shares will make money, in fact, I’m sure of it. And that smells of a rigged game.
2. Shallow understanding. If you’re reading this, and you bought the stock at $93 (roughly the price of its first public trade, up from $68), tell me – have you ever used Alibaba’s services? Do you really understand the company? I doubt it, because Alibaba is a Chinese company. Most of us here in the US don’t speak Chinese, or have a reason to use Alibaba’s services. But for some reason we all seem willing to buy into the “Chinese eBay,” or the “Chinese Facebook,” as if throwing those successful public companies’ reputation over Alibaba’s frame somehow equates to quality. It’s a “bet on China,” as most of the press puts it. Certainly that sounds good, given the country’s growth and early stages, but it leads me to wonder… will most analysts who are covering the stock have done core due diligence on Alibaba – the kind where you go to the market in question and talk to customers, suppliers, and regulators? That would mean they have access and understanding of the culture that controls Alibaba, and I’m pretty sure that culture will not ever allow such diligence to occur (more on that below). What bankers and analysts will tell you is they’ve run the numbers that Alibaba has given them, and they are fantastic. Then again, so are the numbers on Chinese GDP growth – and most well informed people I’ve spoken to say those numbers are unreliable. (Oh, and by the way, if you think the $81 billion China just injected into its own economy was a shrug, I guess you should buy Alibaba without concern). Which leads to…
3. Controlled by a corrupt government. Do you know how China works? I don’t, but I’ve talked to enough folks who have lived and worked in China to get a pretty clear picture: The economic and government culture does not hew to US standards, to put it mildly. And like every other company in China, Alibaba is ultimately controlled by the whims of the Chinese government. It’s something of an open secret that Chinese corporate culture is definitionally corrupt by US standards. So…does listing it on the US stock markets change this fact? I could be wrong (see my caveat at the top), but I don’t believe it does. At least when companies are corrupt in the United States, we have a free and open press, and a democratic rule of law, to keep them in check. One could reasonably argue that it’s a supreme proof of our capitalist system that now Alibaba is public in the US, so it will now have to play by US regulations. I wish I could buy into that narrative, but I sense all we’ll really get is a company well versed at playing our game, rather than a company that is an active builder of value in our society and in other free markets.
Let me put this another way: Here are a list of Internet leaders who decided to forego China, because the government has made it nearly impossible for them to do business in the way that built our capital markets: eBay, Yelp, Twitter, Google, Facebook….and that’s just off the top of my head. So by buying into Alibaba, we’re buying into a system that has, through government fiat, denied innovative US companies growth in the world’s largest market, then capitalized that fiat into a stock it’s now selling back to us. Again, that just seems wrong.
4. Hazy growth outside core markets. Many observers are expecting Alibaba to come into the US and other large markets, and either buy or compete its way in, so as to fuel its long term growth. This I find to be difficult to believe, on many levels. Sure, Alibaba could try to buy…Yahoo!, Yelp, Twitter, hell, maybe even Box or Square or one of the other heavily funded “unicorns.” But…does anyone really believe it can *manage* those companies to success post transaction? To get a sense of how odd that sounds, imagine Google or Facebook buying a slate of Chinese companies and then managing them well. Sounds pretty risky to me.
Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough, and undoubtedly I’ve managed to piss off any number of friends and colleagues across multiple industries. So let me repeat: I’m no expert in Chinese markets, nor am I a professional public market stock investor. I’m just an industry observer, making industry observations. Caveat emptor.