Ma's fancy footwork puts him on a winner with football play

Alibaba boss' move on top club fits with pattern of shaking up sectors with Beijing's blessing, and it helps that the president has a soccer dream

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 June, 2014, 1:05am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 11:23am

What was Jack Ma Yun thinking when he spent 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.48 billion) on Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club?

There's been a wide range of wild guesses. Some said he was drunk. Some said soccer would push the Alibaba brand into every home in China. Some said the goal was football betting on Alibaba's portal. Some even said Alibaba might sell Evergrande's apartments and bottled water.

But, knowing where the goal posts are on the mainland, let's talk politics, which tends to explain most puzzles.

A search on the internet will tell you one thing - Alibaba is involved in almost every challenge to monopolies or dominant incumbents. The soccer play is no exception.

Alibaba is involved in almost every challenge to monopolies or incumbents

You think that's due to the might of the market? Well, the truth is most of Ma's adventures would be impossible without blessings from the very top.

First, let's look at the banks. Every mainland banker is complaining about the pain Yu E Bao has caused them. The deposit scheme offered by Alibaba pays 15 times more interest than the banks do.

The vested interests staged an all-out battle. Top bankers fired off angry remarks and CCTV's chief financial commentator said Yu E Bao should be banned. Retired regulators talked about stability and security concerns and some depositors complained that tens of thousands of yuan had disappeared from their Yu E Bao accounts.

Most new businesses would have long gone under, in the name of risk control. Yet nothing happened to Yu E Bao. It continues to expand and accumulated more than 800 billion yuan within a year.

The banks, after insisting that interest rates should be liberalised only gradually, were forced to offer better rates in the guise of financial products. Whoever sent in the Alibaba mouse certainly got the elephants dancing.

While bankers wonder where Ma will hit next, executives in non-bank financial institutions are also beginning to sweat.

Two weeks ago, the China Securities Regulatory Commission approved Alibaba's acquisition of a 51 per cent controlling stake in Tianhong Asset Management.

This is a big deviation from the rules that state that only a financial entity with three years' track record can control a fund management house.

Alibaba - which can in no way call itself a "financial entity" - secured an exemption in seven months, just a blink of an eye in the mainland's bureaucracy, where controversial decisions can take years.

Via Tianhong, Alibaba now owns a fund management licence, making it a real challenger to a sector that is largely dominated by state firms.

Alibaba is also playing David in the telecommunications industry. It is among the 19 non-state players allowed by Beijing to take on the three government-owned phone giants. And on Tuesday, it announced what it claims to be the mainland's first pay-as-you-call phone scheme.

If these are not enough to illustrate the support and trust that Alibaba has been getting from the top, take a look at the so-called "de-IOE" operation on the mainland. Thanks to the spying operation revealed by Edward Snowden, mainland corporations are slowly switching from IBM, Oracle and EMC hardware and software and into local products for the sake of national security.

Guess who they are turning to? It is the cloud operation of Alibaba and state-owned Inspur.

In short, when the mainland wants a reform, there is Alibaba. The big question is, who has opened the gate to the trusted mouse to push for reform? That is anybody's guess.

In its soccer venture, we know two things, though. One, the country's top leader Xi Jinping is a soccer fan. Years before his Chinese Dream, Xi told of his soccer dream - that China would first qualify for, then host, and finally win, the World Cup.

Two, China's football industry is in terrible shape, with the sport plagued by corruption and the national team lagging far behind its Asian peers.

For anyone who wants to - or at least seen to be wanting to - reform the soccer industry, what better place to start than the Evergrande team, which shocked all the naysayers by winning the AFC Champions League title last year and has backed that up by qualifying for this year's quarter finals?

While the price paid by Ma values Evergrande as if it was a top-tier European side, it's perhaps the least risky venture he has taken on, compared with his forays in the financial and telecommunications sectors.

Ever since Xi came to power, almost every meaningful private developer has bought, or at least talked about buying, a soccer team. With Ma seen as the blessed one, rightly or wrongly, who would hesitate to join him and become a strategic investor in the country's winning team.

After all, it would only take 72 million yuan to buy a 2 per cent stake in the team, according to its fundraising plan. That's peanuts to pay to be an inch closer to the leaders.

It would, however, take the team's valuation from 2.4 billion yuan to 3.6 billion yuan - with Alibaba sitting on a 50 per cent paper gain.