The headquarters of the Alibaba Group in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Jack Ma isn’t just China’s most-famous tech guru. He’s also a one-man economic think tank.

This latter distinction wasn’t part of Ma’s vision for Alibaba. But 20 years on, Ma’s US$450 billion e-commerce juggernaut arguably offers greater insights on China’s zigs and zags than Beijing’s notoriously dodgy data. No company is more on the frontlines of China’s middle-class consumer sector. And for now, Alibaba’s numbers suggest China is holding its own amid a deepening US-China trade war.

Suddenly, though, Ma’s creation is acting as a weathervane of another sort: Hong Kong’s rapidly declining business confidence.

Few financial stories earned more headlines in recent weeks than Alibaba’s US$15 billion listing in Hong Kong. Officials in Beijing were mighty disappointed that Ma did his 2014 initial public offering in New York. A Hong Kong share sale seemed just the thing to restore the city’s mojo amid intensifying headwinds.

Yet the city could lose Ma again. He is shelving the deal as political chaos collides with Donald Trump’s China tariffs.

Hong Kong is already on the verge of recession thanks partly to epic anti-China protests clogging the city’s streets. It shrank 0.4% in the second quarter from the January-March period. That was before giant demonstrations closed the airport at one stage and paralyzed prime shopping areas.

The city’s ports, among the world’s busiest, were already under tremendous pressure from US President Trump’s tariffs. And from the slowest mainland growth in 27 years in the first quarter.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s government is tossing US$2.5 billion in fresh stimulus at the economy. The immediate priority is protecting jobs and offering relief to what officials call “peoples’ financial burden.” The fallout from 11-plus weeks of pro-democracy protests forced the cancellation of almost 1,000 flights, disrupted business and sent investors scurrying from “Asia’s world city.”

Financial Secretary Paul Chan warned that “recent social incidents” are still feeding into official economic data. Translation: investors haven’t seen anything yet in terms of weakening growth and volatile markets.

Ma’s decision to pull Alibaba’s listing suggests even Chan’s caution could be overly optimistic. The Alibaba news came right after brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev shelved a nearly US$10 billion share sale. This is sure to deter other companies in the pipeline, dealing additional blows to market confidence.

The Hang Seng Index’s 10% drop since has investors eyeing opportunities in Singapore, Taiwan and elsewhere. The question now, though, is whether Ma cancels the deal altogether. As of June, Alibaba had more than $30 billion of cash on hand. Perhaps Ma could forego a secondary listing for some time.

Ma finds himself in a tough place. In November 2018, global punters were tantalized by news that China’s most prominent capitalist is a Communist Party member. Given tensions between Beijing and Hong Kong, Ma risks angering Chinese President Xi Jinping by gifting the city such a big deal, and now. Xi’s government, after all, appeared to play a role in last week’s ouster of Cathay Pacific Airways CEO Rupert Hogg.

Ma’s hesitancy casts an additional pall over Hong Kong’s business climate and a uniquely fragile moment. It would’ve potentially been the biggest equity deal of 2019 – and the largest follow-on share transaction in seven years. Not surprisingly, preparation for Alibaba’s quasi-homecoming has been underway for some time.

Alibaba was the Hong Kong exchange’s best hope of making some headway against New York and other rivals. In 2018, Hong Kong even loosened rules to encourage Chinese tech titans to sell shares closer to home. Alibaba was the first to answer the call.

Protests show no sign of letting up. One on Sunday attracted as many as 1.7 million demonstrators, roughly a quarter of the population. That is hurting commerce, spooking tourists and almost surely prompting executives to revise 2020 growth plans. The protests also may be having a bigger effect globally that meets the eye.

Louis Gave of Gavekal Research argues that the recent global stock selloff had more to do with Hong Kong than with economic data out of China, the US or Europe.

“Last week’s occupation of Hong Kong’s airport undeniably raised the stakes in the tussle between the city’s protesters and the government,” Gave says. “Hong Kong’s raison d’être is to be a trade, service and logistics facilitator for the Chinese economy and the broader Asian region.” The airport occupation, he adds, “increased the probability that mainland forces might intervene in Hong Kong, potentially unleashing a chain of events that could prove cataclysmic for global growth.”

Protesters want Lam to step down. They also are demanding that she officially withdraw an extradition bill that sparked the worst crisis since the 1997 handover to China. That law would allow Hongkongers to be spirited away to the mainland. Odds are, things will get worse before they get better.

Slowing global growth hardly helps. Though Trump is delaying his latest tariffs – 10% taxes on $300 billion of goods – he’s still spoiling for a brawl with Xi, if not with Asia more generally. Trump’s clumsy effort to use Hong Kong as a bargaining chip in trade talks met with complete silence from Xi’s team.

The bottom line for companies is that the road to 2020 is more about damage control than investment, hiring or innovating. For governments, it’s about marshaling fresh fiscal and monetary efforts to safeguard growth.

Not a great environment for growth over the next six months. Yet as Ma’s delayed listing shows, fallout from chaos in the streets and markets could exceed even the gloomiest forecasts.

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