【英语财经】投资阿里巴巴的风险与回报 Alibaba IPO shows foreign investors able to skirt restrictions

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2014-5-9 07:10

小艾摘要: China’s internet sector is a curious paradox – it enjoys the most foreign equity investment of any part of the Chinese economy, while at the same time, foreigners do not own a single share.A curious ...
Alibaba IPO shows foreign investors able to skirt restrictions
China’s internet sector is a curious paradox – it enjoys the most foreign equity investment of any part of the Chinese economy, while at the same time, foreigners do not own a single share.

A curious regulatory loophole known as a VIE, or variable interest entity, has allowed foreigners to get around Beijing’s prohibitions against foreign ownership of internet assets. They have amassed huge holdings in companies such as Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba, the ecommerce group that on Tuesday filed for a US IPO that could value it at up to $200bn.

Prospective investors in Alibaba’s listing – likely to raise about $20bn and to be the biggest stock flotation in the world since Facebook – will know that in any dispute with Alibaba’s Chinese investors, their shares could be invalidated and rendered worthless in a Chinese court.

Alibaba’s blockbuster IPO caps a revival for US listings of Chinese companies after a two-year drought brought on by a series of financial scandals at Chinese groups. Ironically, one of the biggest involved none other than Alibaba, which was accused of abusing its VIE to strip assets out of the company in 2011.

But memories are short, and this year “Alibaba is the tide which is lifting all boats after two years of scepticism towards most US listed Chinese companies”, according to Nicholas Manganaro of Ogilvy Financial in Beijing.

Investors will have to have strong nerves. “Every so often someone will read a [IPO] prospectus and say ‘hold on a minute, what do I really own here?’” says Mr Manganaro, adding that the ownership issue has been “hiding in plain sight” for years.

“Chinese regulators have always turned a blind eye, but the fear is what if they don’t? What if it is challenged in court?”

A convenient loophole

Since the first Chinese internet IPO in 2000, Chinese start-ups wanting to list abroad have skirted ownership restrictions by setting up offshore companies known as VIEs. They are domiciled mainly in the Cayman Islands and have a series of contracts that “simulate” ownership in the Chinese company. In the event of a lawsuit, analysts doubt the contractual powers would be enforceable.

“It appears that the VIE structure works – until you need it to work, and then it won’t work. That is a concern that has many investors scared to jump back into Chinese stock,” said Paul Gillis, a professor of accounting at Peking University.

Of the more than 200 Chinese companies to list in the US since 1999, roughly half have used VIEs, according to Fredrik Oqvist, a Beijing-based accountant. These are mainly internet and education companies which are restricted from having foreign shareholders.

Gene Buttrill, of the Jones Day law firm, says the main risks of a VIE are that the individuals holding the shares of the operating company will abscond with the assets and good name of the company. The other is that the Chinese government will deem the structures illegal and “collapse them”.

The Alipay scandal

Everything could go horribly wrong, and has on a number of occasions. In Alibaba’s case, chairman Jack Ma in 2011 transferred ownership of Alipay, the company’s payments arm, out from a VIE and into a structure that he controlled personally. At the time Alibaba Group, the VIE, was 40 per cent owned by Yahoo, and 34 per cent owned by Japan’s SoftBank.

Executives at Yahoo complained that they were not informed of the transfer, though Mr Ma says he consulted Alibaba’s board, on which Yahoo and SoftBank have a seat. Yahoo and SoftBank deny this. The three companies came to a settlement in which if Alipay ever went public, it would pay Alibaba between $2bn and $6bn.

Mr Gillis says Mr Ma’s history of taking advantage of a VIE structure should set off alarm bells. But Alibaba’s prospectus outlined bold plans to mitigate investor fears by holding most of its assets, aside from licences, in the foreign-owned part of its business, and to ensure that most revenue is generated directly by the foreign-owned business.

“Mr Ma seems to have gotten some religion from his past VIE experience,” says Mr Gillis. “The present VIEs are structured better than most, putting most operations in wholly owned subsidiaries and leaving only the licences and permits in the VIEs.”

The VIE structure has always been a grey area in the Chinese legal system, and the Chinese government prefers to look the other way. In 2012, according to a number of lawyers, China’s ministry of commerce drafted a memo suggesting the VIE structure be abolished. But the suggestion “never made it out of committee”, said one.

Mr Buttrill said that the VIE structure has actually been strengthened by the scrutiny. US and Chinese regulators “have each re-examined the structure over the past couple of years, with the result that it is here to stay”, he said.

Auditors under scrutiny

VIEs are just one of the risks that prospective Alibaba investors will have to consider. Another relates to the auditing of Alibaba’s financial statements.

After several US-listed Chinese companies, such as Longtop Financial and Sino Forest, were accused of financial fraud last year, there has been a diplomatic stand-off between the US Securities and Exchange Commission and China’s financial regulators over access to the audit papers of Chinese companies.

This means, as Alibaba writes in its prospectus, that the audit of its accounts by PwC is not fully inspected by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, the US’s top audit watchdog, and could, as with all other US-listed Chinese companies, be barred from being listed on a US stock exchange.

“The path we’re on now is that all US-listed Chinese companies could eventually get kicked off US exchanges,” said Mr Gillis.

“What we’re hoping for is a diplomatic agreement, because at the end of the day this is not between the SEC and Chinese regulators. It is between the US and China trying to figure out their respective places in the world.”

Treasures abound

Yet if the risks can be daunting, investors have in many cases been compensated richly as well. Shares in 58.com, a Chinese version of Craigslist that listed in November, has nearly doubled since its debut.

South Africa’s Naspers, the publishing company, bought a 46 per cent stake in then-lossmaking Tencent in May 2001 for $32m. Thirteen years later, Hong Kong-listed Tencent is one of Asia’s biggest technology companies, with a market capitalisation of $114bn.

According to its internal estimates disclosed in the prospectus, Alibaba in April valued itself at up to $121bn, though the final valuations at its IPO could be swayed by internal performance, the market and investor reaction to a roadshow spanning three continents.

Nevertheless, the message is clear – the risk-reward calculation is heavily skewed in favour of the reward.

“The scenario is so binary,” says one lawyer. “You can’t afford not to invest in these things. But if something goes wrong, you are left with nothing.”

中国互联网行业有一个奇怪的悖论——虽然它是中国经济中接受境外股权投资最多的领域,但外资企业对该领域并不持有一丝一毫的股份。

通过可变利益实体(VIE)这个奇怪的监管漏洞,外资企业得以绕开中国政府禁止外资拥有境内互联网资产的规定。它们已在腾讯(Tencent)、百度(Baidu)和阿里巴巴(Alibaba)等公司持有大量利益。电商集团阿里巴巴本周二向美国提交了首次公开发行(IPO)申请,其估值最高可能达2000亿美元。

阿里巴巴股票的未来投资者应该明白,一旦与该公司的中国投资者发生争议,他们的股票可能被中国法院判定无效,变得一文不值。阿里巴巴IPO可能融资约200亿美元,成为自Facebook上市以来全球规模最大的IPO。

阿里巴巴声势浩大的IPO将成为中国企业赴美上市活动复苏的高潮。此前两年里,由于多家中国企业相继曝出财务丑闻,中概股在美国遇冷。讽刺的是,最轰动的丑闻之一恰恰涉及到阿里巴巴,该公司被指控于2011年滥用VIE架构将资产从公司剥离出去。

北京奥美金融(Ogilvy Financial)的尼古拉斯?曼加纳罗(Nicholas Manganaro)表示,人的记忆是短暂的,“在大多数在美上市中国企业普遍遭到怀疑两年后,(今年)阿里巴巴IPO就相当于涨潮,能把所有船只都抬高”。

投资者仍需有极大的勇气。“人们时常会读到一份(IPO)招股说明书,然后发问,‘等一下,我投资进去到底能拥有什么?’”他补充道,所有权问题“隐藏在人们眼皮底下”有好几年了。

“中国监管机构一直故意视而不见,但令人担心的是,如果他们一反常态怎么办?如果这个问题被告到法院怎么办?”

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一个便于利用的漏洞

自从2000年中国互联网企业第一次IPO以来,中国希望到境外上市的初创企业,一直通过设立VIE架构的离岸公司,绕开外资所有权限制。这些公司主要把注册地设在开曼群岛(Cayman Islands),并利用一系列协议“模拟”取得中国企业的所有权。倘若被诉至法院,分析师怀疑这些协议是否真的具有法律执行力。

“VIE架构现在看来管用,但到你需要它真管用时,它就不管用了。许多投资者不敢再碰中国企业股票,就是存在这种担忧,”北京大学会计学教授保罗?吉利斯(Paul Gillis)说。

驻北京会计师弗雷德里克?奥基维斯特(Fredrik Oqvist)表示,自1999年以来共有200多家中国企业在美上市,其中大约一半采用了VIE架构。由于互联网和教育行业的企业在外资持股方面受限制,采用VIE架构的主要是这两类企业。

众达律师事务所(Jones Day)的卜嘉男(Gene Buttrill)表示,VIE的主要风险是,持有运营公司股份的个人可能卷走公司资产,并损害公司的良好声誉。另一点担忧是,中国政府可能认为VIE架构非法,并“摧毁该结构”。

支付宝(Alipay)丑闻

一切事情都可能变得非常糟糕,而且在很多情况下这确实发生了。以阿里巴巴为例,该公司董事长马云(Jack Ma) 2011年将支付业务子公司支付宝转移出VIE,转入他本人控股的一家公司。在当时的VIE阿里巴巴集团(Alibaba Group)中,雅虎(Yahoo)持股40%,日本软银(SoftBank)持股34%。

雅虎的高管抱怨称,他们对支付宝被转移毫不知情,不过马云则表示他已咨询过阿里巴巴董事会——雅虎和软银在其中皆有席位。雅虎和软银对此予以否认。这三家公司后来达成了和解,约定倘若支付宝上市,将向阿里巴巴支付20亿至60亿美元。

吉利斯说,马云善于利用VIE结构的过往应给人们敲响警钟。但阿里巴巴招股说明书简要列出了旨在化解投资者担忧的大胆计划,包括让外资控股的那一部分业务持有大部分阿里巴巴资产(牌照除外),并确保绝大部分收入直接由外资控股公司产生。

“马云看来十分崇尚过去操持VIE架构的那一套,”吉利斯说,“目前的VIE架构设计得比过去更巧妙,将大部分业务置于全资子公司内,VIE仅持有牌照和许可。”

VIE架构在中国法律体系中一直属于灰色地带,而中国政府更乐于从另一个角度看问题。据多名律师称,2012年中国商务部草拟了一份提议取缔VIE架构的备忘录。但一名律师表示,该提议“最终胎死腹中”。

卜嘉男表示,审查实际上反而强化了VIE架构。他说,美中两国监管机构“过去两年里分别重新审查了该架构,结果是该架构保留到了现在”。

被审查的审计机构

VIE架构不过是阿里巴巴潜在投资者必须考虑的风险之一。另一个风险牵涉到对阿里巴巴财务报表的审计。

去年,东南融通(Longtop Financial)和嘉汉林业(Sino Forest)等多家在美上市中国企业被控实施了财务欺诈。随后,美国证交会(SEC)与中国金融监管机构,在获取上市中国企业审计工作底稿的问题上陷入了一场外交对峙。

正如阿里巴巴在其招股说明书中所写,这意味着,普华永道(PwC)对阿里巴巴账目的审计结果,没有经过美国最高审计监管机构——上市公司会计监管委员会(Public Company Accounting Oversight Board,PCAOB)的完全审查,因此,可能像所有其他在美上市中国企业一样,被禁止在美国的股票交易所挂牌上市。

吉利斯说:“我们现在面临的是,所有在美上市中国企业可能最终被踢出美国的交易所。”

“我们希望美中达成一项外交协议,因为归根结底,这不仅仅是美国证交会与中国监管机构之间的事。此事牵涉到美中两国努力厘清各自在世界上的位置。”

回报丰厚

不过,如果说风险可能大得吓人的话,投资者在许多情况下也得到了丰厚的补偿。中国版Craigslist——58同城(58.com)去年11月在美上市,如今其股价自上市以来几乎上涨了一倍。

2001年5月,南非传媒公司Naspers斥资3200万美元,买入当时处于亏损状态的腾讯46%的股份。13年之后,在香港上市的腾讯已成为亚洲最大科技企业之一,市值达到1140亿美元。

据招股说明书披露的内部估算,今年4月阿里巴巴对自身估值高达1210亿美元,不过,IPO的最终估值可能受到内部业绩、以及市场与投资者对一场跨三大洲路演的反应的影响。

然而,这向外界传达了明确的信息——关于风险与回报的权衡考量在很大程度上偏向了回报。

一名律师说:“这个情况太极端了,非此即彼。你没法不投资这样的公司。但如果哪个环节出了问题,你就血本无归。”

译者/邢嵬

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