Saturday, September 20, 2014

Is Alibaba comparable to a US company?

Alibaba is this weeks hot news -- they have had a lengthy PR campaign (preceded by a documentary film) followed by a record-setting stock offering.

I went with the hot-news flow, posting a comparison of Alibaba's market capitalization to those of other prominent companies as a "current event" for my class, but then I began to wonder whether that was an apples-to-apples comparison. I think I know what companies like Apple or Intel or Amazon are and do, but, I am not sure about Alibaba.

This was driven home by a New York Times article on Alibaba and its relationships to other companies and its history with respect to Yahoo. A lot of the article is summed up in the accompanying graphic, which depicts Alibaba's corporate investments, corporate investors, including Yahoo and Softbank, and Alibaba founder Jack Ma's personal investments:

This graphic reminded me of a case study of the Internet in Singapore that I worked on several years ago. With the help of my nephew, who worked for Goldman Sachs in Singapore at the time, I made the following graph of the ownership relationships between Singapore info-communication companies and the Singapore government in the year 2000.

Both graphics depict a Web of business and ownership relationships, based on corporate and personal ties. (The tie between Yahoo and Alibaba seems to have been based in large part on the relationship between Jack Ma and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang). To a degree, US corporations are also parts of such webs, but is their interconnection as deep as that of Alibaba or the Singaporean companies?*

These graphics call to mind the stereotypical differences between US and Chinese (Asian?) cultures. For example, this pre-departure guide for Chinese students contrasts an individualistic US with a collectivist China.

I am surely not an organization theorist, political scientist or anything close, but I wonder about basic differences between a US company and a Chinese company like Alibaba. Is owning a share of, say, Apple, conceptually the same as owning a share of Alibaba?


* This is not to imply that all Asian corporate cultures are the same -- for example, the venture-capitalist role of the Singapore government is apparent in the Singapore figure above. That being said, it should be noted that, when I was there, Chinese people dominated the Singaporean companies.

Update 10/3/2014

There is a long discussion of this post on the Slashdot Web site. The discussion rambles quite a bit -- for example some comments talk about the structure of this particular offering rather than the nature of Chinese vs. US corporations. One exchange that I liked was:

Comment: At that high level, the line between corporations and the government becomes blurry, no matter which country you live in. Just look at Standard Oil, Boeing, Halliburton... The list goes on.

Reply: For sure, but are there differences in degree? For example, in Chinese dominated Singapore, the government is an explicit shareholder. I wonder if anyone has done a study of explicit ownership of stock by US companies --- e. g., does Haliburton own stock in Standard Oil?