HONG KONG -- Chinese technology unicorns are expected to flock to Hong Kong to list after smartphone maker Xiaomi became the first to apply to float in the city with a dual-class structure in what is expected to be the biggest such deal since Alibaba's in New York in 2014.
Xiaomi, the fourth largest smartphone maker after Apple, Samsung and Huawei by exports in the first quarter this year, on Thursday filed to go public in Hong Kong. It is expected to raise $10 billion in its initial public offering, expected by July, which could value the company at $100 billion, according to media reports.
If the Beijing-based company founded just eight years ago is successful in its IPO, it will become the third biggest Chinese tech company by market capitalization after Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings. In its first detailed financial report, Xiaomi posted a loss of 43.9 billion yuan ($7.7 billion) last year, compared with a profit of 491.6 million yuan in 2016. But its operating profit tripled to 12.2 billion yuan in the same period.
China is home to 164 unicorns -- companies valued at over $1 billion -- worth $628.4 billion in total, according to a 2017 report compiled by China's Ministry of Science and Technology and consulting firm Great Wall Strategy Consultants. Historically, Chinese tech companies preferred public offerings in the U.S., where listing rules are more flexible and investors tend to tolerate higher valuations compared with Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Hong Kong's rule change will now put it on a level playing field with the U.S. for high-profile listings, analysts said.
"To Chinese tech companies, Hong Kong has become an IPO destination at least on par with the U.S." said Ringo Choi, Asia Pacific IPO leader at accounting firm Ernst & Young.
Last month, the Hong Kong stock exchange amended its long-cherished equal voting rights rule to allow some shareholders greater say over others in the biggest shake-up of its IPO regime in 20 years. The change was in part triggered by Alibaba's $25 billion IPO in New York after it was turned down by Hong Kong regulators over its company structure.
Choi said that this change in listing rules will drive mainland unicorns to seek IPOs in Hong Kong this year, boosting the city's global ranking as an international fundraising center. In the first quarter of this year, Hong Kong slipped to third place after New York and Shanghai due to the lack of any blockbuster IPO.
Founders of internet-based companies often hold greater voting rights than ordinary investors, giving them the ability to retain control over the operations of the listed entities. Facebook and Alphabet, a holding company of Google, have a similar dual-class share structure in the U.S.
Under the new rules, Xiaomi's founder Lei Jun -- who is already the company's biggest shareholder with a 31.4% stake, according to its prospectus -- will be able to exercise voting rights that are up to 10 times greater than other investors.
"It makes better sense for companies to be listed in places close to their investors," Choi said, adding that the expanded stock connect schemes between Hong Kong and mainland stock exchanges allow domestic investors to trade without going through the complicated foreign exchange rules required for investments in the U.S.
But Robert Cleaver, partner at law firm Linklaters, said that Hong Kong still needed to prove that it can stand out in the global competition. "The rules are only a small part of what attracts investors. More important is the amount of liquidity available in the market and the kinds of valuations that issuers can achieve," he said in an email to the Nikkei Asian Review. " It remains to be seen whether Hong Kong can stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. and China for tech companies, in those terms."
Nonetheless, several other Chinese unicorns are already though to be pondering a listing home in Hong Kong. Xu Bing, co-founder of SenseTime, a Chinese artificial intelligence unicorn backed by Alibaba, told the Nikkei Asian Review last month that it was considering an IPO and that it was "very important" for the company to be able to have a dual-class share structure.
Meituan Dianping, a Chinese food review and delivery giant backed by Tencent, has begun discussion for a Hong Kong IPO that could value the company at $60 billion, according to a Bloomberg report. Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing, and Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial are also seen as possible listing candidates in Hong Kong.
Xiaomi separately announced on Thursday a global partnership with CK Hutchison, a conglomerate controlled by Hong Kong business tycoon Li Ka-shing. The alliance will allow Xiaomi to use Hutchison's global retail and telecom network spanning over 70 countries to distribute its smartphones and other products. Stores under the 3 Group and A.S. Watson brands will give certain "preferential arrangement" to Xiaomi's smartphone in markets including Denmark, Ireland and Sweden, according to the statement.
Fok Can-ning, co-managing director at CK Hutchison, declined to comment on whether the group would buy into Xiaomi's Hong Kong IPO. Xiaomi Senior Vice President Wang Xiang declined to comment on the IPO during the deal-signing ceremony in Hong Kong.