Alibaba Rumored to be Seeking Media Acquisitions, Disposals

alibaba Jack Ma Hollywood Red Carpet
Celine Loup for Variety

China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba has been on a corporate spending spree for the past two years. And it may not have finished yet, if widely reported rumors that it is seeking to buy the South China Morning Post newspaper turn out to be correct. But it may finally be positioning itself to sell some businesses too.

A succession of media reports have emerged this week suggesting that Alibaba is negotiating to buy a controlling stake in the SCMP, an English-language newspaper publisher based in Hong Kong. The seller is the Kuok family, a wealthy Malaysian Chinese family that also controls the Kerry Group, with substantial property and logistics interests.

Alibaba is also seemingly in active negotiations to sell off a minority stake in one of China’s new Internet leaders, Meituan-Dianping, which has interests in online restaurant booking and group buying, and operates one of China’s leading cinema ticketing services.

Contacted by Variety, Alibaba refused comment on either possible transaction.

The SCMP, once owned by Rupert Murdoch, has a modest circulation of some 110,000, but boasts lucrative advertising revenue from jewelry, Hong Kong’s sky-high property market and from legal and financial notices. That meant that a few years ago it was considered as the world’s most profitable newspaper per reader.

It maintains a reputation as the paper of record for Hong Kong, and keeps a watchful eye on mainland China, though that reputation has been tarnished of late. There have been repeated firings of journalists, columnists and section editors who have been too critical of the Hong Kong government and especially the government’s pro-Beijing stance. The paper’s current editor in chief Wang Xiangwei was reportedly appointed after consultation with China’s Liaison Office in the Special Administrative Region.

Speculation has therefore raged as to whether the SCMP under Alibaba ownership would become more pliant and Beijing complicit, or whether executive chairman Jack Ma is merely following the footsteps of his U.S. alter ego, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos who last year became owner of The Washington Post. Bezos promised to be a hands-off owner. (Ma had a run in with the SCMP last year when it reported him as sympathizing with the authorities over the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, though Ma claimed he was misquoted.)

Perhaps Alibaba is more simply seeking to tap into the SCMP’s high net worth reader base, with ambitions in the property transactions business and high end retailing – and to offer the SCMP’s readers a much needed upgrade to their online experience.

While newspaper ownership would be a first for Alibaba, the company has spent considerably on media and entertainment assets. In 2014 it paid over $800 million to buy ChinaVision which has since been reinvented as Alibaba Pictures Group. And it has agreed to pay a further $3.6 million on top of an initial $1.22 billion for leading online video site Youku Tudou. This is in addition to $1.05 billion for 20% of WebTV firm Wasu Media, $16 million for a stake in movie marketing firm Bale, $120 million for U.S. games firm Kabam, $50 million for mobile TV app developer Peel and undisclosed amounts in short film site Vmovier, Chinese games publisher KTplay, and tech news portal Huxiu.

And in the last year, Alibaba has twice upped its stake in China’s leading private sector film studio Huayi Brothers. It now owns an 8% stake in Huayi worth $800 million.

Media, entertainment and leisure have only been some of the purchases Alibaba has made – others include a phone handset maker and a bricks and mortar electronics retailer – in what amounts to an acquisition spree.

According to financial data provider Dealogic, Alibaba has made 47 acquisitions since the beginning of 2014 with deals valued at a combined $23.9 billion. That is roughly equivalent to the $25 billion the company raised in September last year when it launched its giant initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange.

Significantly to financial analysts, Alibaba has used cash rather than shares. That suggests a high degree of confidence by the company as well as a degree of uncertainty about its shares. Alibaba’s American Depositary Shares were listed at $68 each and reached a high of $115.17, before slumping to $57.2. They now stand above the IPO price at $81.3 million, making it’s a corporation with a $200 billion market capitalization. (Alibaba shares have risen of late despite uncertainty from Yahoo, which is trying to find a tax efficient way to dispose of its 384 million shares in Alibaba, worth $31.2 billion.)

Alibaba may have a little more cash to play with if the sale of Meituan-Dianping goes ahead.

Meituan-Dianping was formed from the recent merger of two of China’s hottest digital startups, Meituan, in which Alibaba had invested $700 million, and Dianping. Their merger leaves Alibaba with a stake of only 7% in the privately-held company.

Alibaba is understood to be seeking $1 billion for its stake, a figure that is said to be in line with Meituan-Dianping’s latest valuation. But financial media have suggested that Alibaba will find it difficult to achieve that as it cannot offer investors the same guarantees at the time of an IPO that Meituan-Dianping itself is said to be providing. More to the point, however, may be a decision to avoid conflict of interests in the restaurant and the booming cinema ticketing sectors. By some estimates some 50%-60% of multiplex tickets in China are now sold online, most of those through mobile.

Alibaba is building its Taobao B2C platform as one of China’s major ticket vendors, and is moving to integrate as many of the group components as possible, so that users can navigate seamlessly from social media and information services to purchases in the real and virtual worlds.

Although there have been questions over Alibaba’s digital entertainment strategy since the arrest and incarceration earlier this year of the section’s CEO, the group seems determined to press on with integration of film investment and production, film marketing and film commerce. Last month it confirmed the transfer of several entertainment assets from the main group to Alibaba Pictures.

And in the context of Alibaba’s international outreach, buying the SCMP as its flagship could herald further English-language media buys and expansion of Alibaba’s ‘ecosystem.’

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