Friday, April 29, 2011

Vanity thy name is Chinese internet company

Why does a Chinese internet company wish to get listed in the US ? I can't fathom the logic. Hence this post.
The Chinese internet landscape is a strange one. Almost every one of the global majors is blocked. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Blogger, you name it and it is blocked. Instead there is a carbon copy of each one of them locally in Chinese. For Google, read Baidu. For Facebook, read Renren, for YouTube read Youku or Tudou, for Twitter read Sina Weibo or the dozens of similar clones. These are the ones that are wildly popular, having millions of users, only in Chinese and therefore almost exclusively used by Chinese. Never mind that these  are all censored , watched, bullied, etc etc by the jīndùn gōngchéng (The Great Firewall). This post is not about that cursed censorship.

These sites are all by entrepreneur led start up companies , similar to the American originals.  And they all want to list and make huge money. Fair enough. But they seem to want to list in the US. Qihoo 360 (an antivirus company) and 21 Vianet (a hosting service provider), recently listed. Renren is next on line. As is Tudou. Why O Why ?

Its fair that you want to list in the market which can give you the highest IPO price. These days valuation of a company rarely depends on where it is listed. You want to list in the market that is most liquid. The Nasdaq is the most liquid market for such companies in the world. But for the size of these companies, there is enough liquidity in virtually any major market. You would list in a place where your major customers are (the reason why Indian software companies are all listed in the US), as this is a significant weapon in a sales pitch. But none of these Chinese companies are targeting the US - Americans are not going to learn Chinese in a hurry.

Consider the downsides. You fall into the dreaded ambit of the Sarbanes Oxley Act, although that tiger is looking rather old and the canine is decaying. You need corporate governance standards that are going to be a real challenge to meet for Chinese companies. You open yourself to requirements of transparency that sit uncomfortably in China. The possibility of getting sued always exists - Renren hasn't even listed and already noise is being created that the prospectus is misleading.

There is the obvious alternative for these companies - Hong Kong. Highly liquid market, excellent valuations to be got, internationally respected, but without the major downsides such as the Sarbanes Oxley Act. And they can speak Chinese in Hong Kong, although the mainlanders scorn at the Hong Kongese attempts at Mandarin.

All this is of course well known to the entrepreneurs - they are brilliant businessmen after all. So why do they then plunge into the US market. I think the answer is Vanity. Perhaps their own as well as the vanity of the Chinese government which would like to quote large numbers of Chinese companies being listed in the US. Vanity stroked by greedy investment bankers, is probably the cause of this bull rush. Its a dangerous substance to introduce into the jungle of business. But then, its always been there and perhaps always will be. After all, businessmen are human beings first.

With due apologies to Shakespeare for plagiarising the title of this post. Although he wrote in Hamlet , Frailty, thy name is woman, in popular usage Vanity is often the attributed womanly quality in the quote. As a parting jab at the multitude (?) of incredibly beautiful women who throng this  space :) perhaps that juxtaposition is not entirely misplaced ! I am taking cover !!