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商业 - 科技

阿里上市隐现“一仆二主”难题

Jack T. Ciesielski 2014年05月22日

中国法律要求马云及阿里巴巴的董事和它的VIE高管必须出于善意按照对VIE最有利的方法行事。同时,注册地开曼群岛的法律要求他负责照顾并忠实于上市公司股东。这样就形成了一仆二主的局面,从而可能带来利益冲突。

    本月初,中国电子商务巨擘阿里巴巴集团(Alibaba Group)申请在美国上市,有望成为美国历史上规模最大的IPO之一。这家公司在招股说明书中称,它的优势之一在于“管理团队有主人翁精神”,但这样的描述过于简单。问题在于:谁和管理层一样具有这样的精神——是公众股东?还是深藏在阿里巴巴财务报表中的国内实体所有者?

    这个问题很重要,原因是阿里巴巴首席执行官马云既要为阿里巴巴的中国子公司工作,也要也为新的公众股东服务。所有合并后财务报表里都隐藏着这样一个陷阱。这些报表描述的是个统一的整体,但控股公司之下的诸多子公司才是真正开展经营活动的实体,而它们的所有权情况各不相同。有时,外部人士持有子公司的多数股份,他们的资产会成为贷款人追索的对象。如果投资者只看合并后的报表,这些细节问题并不总是一目了然。

    和许多以往赴美国上市的中国大陆公司一样,阿里巴巴不得已采用了可变利益实体(variable interest entities)模式。中国允许某些行业的私营公司通过设立境外公司进入海外市场,这些境外公司可以全资拥有中国境内公司。但一些受限制的领域禁止外资进入,包括互联网行业。在这些受限制行业,公司所有人必须是中国公民,不允许出现外国投资。

    这就是赴美上市的中国公司采用特殊会计方法的原因,但它也导致了管理层和所有者的矛盾,比如马云和公众股东。对受限制行业的公司来说,主要的解决方法一直是让中国公民掌握所有权,同时设立一家可以上市的境外公司,双方通过订立合同构成所有和被所有关系。这样,境外上市公司就能获得中国公司的经营成果,同时不会真正持有后者的股份。那么,要符合美国会计准则,境外上市公司就必须把中国公司纳入自己的合并后财报。并表后,外界会把双方视为一个统一的整体,即使中国公司管理层的目标可能和境外上市公司管理层的目标大相径庭。

    2005年前后,这种模式帮助了大批中国公司在美国上市,或者进行反向收购。阿里巴巴也将这种方法用到了自己在中国境内的业务,比如淘宝网、阿里巴巴网站和阿里巴巴全球速卖通等。马云是这些中国境内公司的所有者之一,同时也是即将出现的境外上市公司所有者中的一员。

    不过,对于在受限制行业开展经营活动的公司来说,它的“主人翁精神”可能和上市公司股东的主人翁精神存在差异。中国法律要求公司董事或高管承担受托责任。因此,阿里巴巴的董事和该可变利益实体的高管,包括马云在内,必须出于善意按照对可变利益实体最有利的方法行事。同时,按照开曼群岛(Cayman Islands)法律,马云有责任照顾并忠实于上市公司股东。这就形成了一仆二主的局面。

    同时,作为外国私营发行人,阿里巴巴可以不受纽约证券交易所(New York Stock Exchange)某些管理要求的制约,这一点进一步增加了事情的复杂性。独立董事不必在该公司董事会占据多数,薪酬委员会和公司治理委员会成员也不需要都是独立董事。

    当然,和以往许多赴美上市的中国公司相比,阿里巴巴的可变利益实体在合并后财报中所占的比重要小得多:截至2013年12月31日,该实体占阿里巴巴总资产的17%,占此前9个月收入的11%。阿里巴巴中国业务的成长势头吸引了投资者,但这也正是该可变利益实体所属之地。投资者希望自己的增长憧憬能变为现实,而阿里巴巴出现利益冲突的条件也已经成熟,只是现在这个问题还够不明显。(财富中文网)

    本文作者是巴尔的摩资产管理及研究公司R.G. Associates总裁,该公司出版的专业期刊《分析师会计观察》旨在为机构投资者提供研究服务。

    译者:Charlie

    Earlier this month, China's e-commerce giant Alibaba Group filed to go public in the U.S. in what could be one of the biggest IPOs in American history. In the prospectus, one of the company's claimed strengths is a "management team with owner mentality," but that's far too simplistic. The question is: With which owners does management share its mentality -- the public owners or the owners with holdings in the Chinese entities buried deep inside the company's financial statements?

    The question is important because CEO Jack Ma works for Alibaba subsidiaries inside China, as well as the firm's new public shareholders. This is the hidden hook inside all consolidated financial statements. These documents paint a picture of a unified whole, but the many subsidiaries under a holding company umbrella are where the real operations take place. They are also subject to different levels of ownership. Outsiders sometimes own a chunk of equity in subsidiaries, and their assets can be subject to claims of lenders. These details aren't always apparent to investors looking only at the consolidated picture.

    Like many of mainland China's past offerings in the U.S., Alibaba makes use of "variable interest entities" out of necessity. China permits privately controlled firms in some industries to tap foreign markets by establishing offshore companies permitted to wholly own Chinese companies. Yet it prohibits foreign investments in certain restricted industries, including the Internet. These controlled industries must be owned by Chinese nationals; no foreign investment are allowed.

    That's where the mutant accounting comes in, as well as the conflicts between manager-owners, including Ma and public shareholders. The essential work-around for a firm in a restricted industry has been to establish ownership in it by Chinese nationals, while establishing an offshore company that can be publicly listed. Mimic an owner relationship by setting up contracts between the two parties so that the offshore public firm reaps the successes of the Chinese firm -- without actually owning shares in it. Thus, for U.S.accounting purposes, the Chinese firm must be included in the consolidated financial statements of the public firm. In consolidation, the two parties are viewed as one harmonious entity -- even though the management goals for the Chinese firm may be far different than the management goals of the public firm.

    This was the corporate template helping power the wave of Chinese IPOs and reverse mergers in the U.S. during the mid-2000s, and it's employed by Alibaba for the China-domiciled operations such as Taobao Marketplace, Alibaba.com. and AliExpress, among others. Ma is among the owners of those China-domiciled companies and also, among the owners of the soon-to-be-public firm.

    Yet the "owner mentality" of one firm -- the one doing business in a regulated industry -- might differ from the owner mentality of the public firm's shareholders. China's laws require a fiduciary duty to a company by its directors or executive officer. Alibaba's directors and executive officers of the variable interest entities, including Ma, must therefore act in good faith and in the best interests of the variable interest entities. At the same time, under Cayman Islands law, Ma has a duty of care and loyalty to public shareholders. That's like asking one man to serve two masters.

    Adding to the complexities, as a foreign private issuer, Alibaba can waive some New York Stock Exchange governance requirements. The board composition will not include a majority of independent directors; the board's compensation committee or corporate governance committee will not be composed of only independent directors.

    To be sure, Alibaba's variable interest entities account for much less of its consolidated picture than many past Chinese firm IPOs: As of Dec. 31, 2013, they were 17% of the total assets and 11% of the nine months' revenues. Investors are attracted to Alibaba for its in-China growth, however -- and that's precisely where the variable interest entities reside. What looks modest today might be an area ripe for conflicts of interest, if investors' dreams of growth are to come true.

    Jack T. Ciesielski is president of R.G. Associates, Inc., an asset management and research firm in Baltimore that publishes The Analyst's Accounting Observer, a research service for institutional investors.

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