Alibaba Spinoff to Unlock Massive Value

Jon Markman

Giant businesses are hiding in plain sight. They’re just locked inside giant tech companies, patiently waiting to be set free.

That’s the story of Ant Group, a subsidiary of Alibaba ((BABA) -Get Report), the Chinese internet giant. Ant managers plan to offer 15% of the company in an initial public offering, valuing the financial technology business at $200 billion.

The same riches, and possibly more, are hidden inside American internet businesses.

A big part of the story is digital transformation. Internet businesses like Alibaba, Amazon.com ((AMZN) -Get Report), Alphabet ((GOOGL) -Get Report) and Facebook ((FB) -Get Report) were early to digital age. They moved commerce, visual media and socialization online. In the process, they built out new businesses, or acquired bits and pieces, that have become essential to everyday life.

In China, Ant Group operates Alipay. With 900 million customers, it the most popular digital payment service in China -- arguably the most advanced contactless payments market in the world. The Chinese marketplace is unique because major players skipped over the credit card infrastructure that dominates in the West. The country went from cash payments, directly to digital wallets.

With Alipay installed on a smartphone, the device becomes a virtual wallet, linked directly to a bank account. This allows users to buy products in the mall, and online by simply scanning QR codes. It means the end of cash payments in outdoor markets, restaurants and shops. And Ant gets a 0.6% fee on every transaction.

It’s where Apple ((AAPL) -Get Report) and Alphabet want to go with Apple Pay and Google Pay.

But don’t dismiss Western companies. They’re building big foundational digital businesses, too.

Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing giant housed inside Amazon.com, commands one-third of the $96 billion cloud infrastructure market. AWS was originally founded to support the online store. It invested in data centers, telecommunications equipment and software infrastructure at breakneck pace to get ahead of the bandwidth demand as the store grew.

Then, in 2004, it occurred to managers these same processing and storage services could be sold to other businesses. AWS had net sales of $35 billion in 2019, about 2x the 2017 run rate. Profit margins were 29.3%.

According to a Barrons story in May 2018, analysts valued the standalone business at $500 billion. You can bet it would be valued a lot higher now.

The story of YouTube has a similar arc. The business was started in 2005 by three ex-employees of PayPal ( (PYPL) -Get Report). They wanted to give everyone with internet access a place to share their videos for free. The company was acquired for $1.65 billion by Google only two years later.

The search giant, in February, broke out sales figures for YouTube for the first time. The company logged $15 billion in revenue. The little business of grainy home videos has become a big business, with independent managers, the ability to raise outside investment and a corporate structure built specifically to become a separate business.

A Needham analyst in 2019 suggested YouTube could be half as valuable as Facebook. That would be at least $350 billion now.

Then there is Instagram and WhatsApp, two messaging services living independently inside of Facebook. The companies were acquired 2012 and 2014, for $1 billion and $19 billion, respectively.

Instagram cracked 1 billion monthly active users June 2018 and has become a major social media platform itself. Some 500 million users log in every day, spending an average of 53 minutes.

WhatsApp now has 1.5 billion monthly active users, with 1 billion of them visiting the site every day. Members send 65 billion WhatsApp messages every day, 29 million per minute.

Facebook managers, last week, were quick to note that both services will soon get important roles. The company is integrating contactless payments and ecommerce capabilities, making them look and feel more like Alipay.

It’s not a surprise Western companies are trying to emulate Ant Group. It’s a great model and the shares will be a huge hit when they land on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges later thus year. Despite the global pandemic, the IPO is expected to be one of the biggest deals of the young decade.

Investors should keep in mind the same hidden values are lurking here, too. Amazon.com, Alphabet and Facebook have been big winners this year but there is even more value hiding within.

Buy big tech companies’ shares into any material weakness this summer and fall.

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