Alibaba snub puts Hong Kong exchange on the defensive

March 17, 2014: 7:11 AM ET
jack ma
Alibaba founder Jack Ma has decided to list his company in the U.S. after negotiations failed with Hong Kong.
HONG KONG (CNNMoney)

Chinese tech giant Alibaba's decision to list in the U.S. instead of Hong Kong has raised questions over whether the Asian city will ever regain its IPO crown.

Hong Kong clocked three consecutive years as the global IPO leader between 2009 and 2011, attracting major companies such as Prada, Glencore and Samsonite to the city's exchange.

But in recent years, mega IPOs have been few and far between due to a sluggish global economic recovery and slowing growth in mainland China.

Landing Alibaba would have been a move in the right direction, but the Hong Kong exchange refused to allow the e-commerce giant to list with a corporate structure that would give management unprecedented powers.

Related story: China's Alibaba picks U.S. for IPO

Alibaba's partners, including founder Jack Ma, were worried about losing control of the company and had lobbied furiously for a rule change. To maintain their grip, Alibaba wanted to give its partners -- rather than its investors -- the right to appoint the majority of board members.

When the Hong Kong Stock Exchange refused, Alibaba decided to take its business to a U.S. exchange, where the company's management structure will be accepted.

Hong Kong has now lost its chance at hosting what's expected to be one of the world's largest market debuts, and sentiment remains divided over whether a rule change is necessary.

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Some say greater flexibility is needed to attract firms to Hong Kong, while others say the rules must remain in place to protect the interests of investors and shareholders.

Whether Hong Kong decides to make substantial changes remains to be seen, but there are indications the city could be considering amendments to its listing regulations.

Related story: Turning Alibaba away has risks for Hong Kong

Hong Kong needs "to find ways to make our market more responsive and competitive, particularly with respect to new economy or technology companies," Hong Kong Stock Exchange CEO Charles Li said in a statement.

"We have to consider possible changes where they might be necessary...to ensure our markets continue to be relevant in the new era of economic development," he said.

Li has previously voiced support for a debate around alternative governance structures similar to what Alibaba proposed -- something he suggested might be needed to attract tech firms.

But other experts say it remains unlikely that Hong Kong regulators will revise rules anytime soon.

Related story: Meet Alibaba, Yahoo's Chinese secret weapon

"The reason you would have changed them is for commercial reasons -- to get one of the world's biggest IPOs in history, and now that's slipped between their fingers," said Mizuho analyst Jim Antos. "I think they missed an opportunity, and it doesn't show the greatest business judgment in the world."

Alibaba is estimated to raise $15 billion -- that's just shy of Facebook (FB), whose $16 billion 2012 market debut was the third-largest IPO ever.

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