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The 5 biggest Chinese IPOs of 2020—and what to watch for in 2021

December 23, 2020, 10:06 AM UTC

In a year battered by pandemic-induced economic slowdowns, the global IPO market will end 2020 with a bang—up more than 23% in value, compared to 2019, according to accounting firm KPMG.

That increase is due in large part to a surge in activity in Hong Kong and mainland China. Five of the 10 biggest IPOs of 2020 (and four of the top five) occurred on exchanges in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Of course, hanging over that record is the much-anticipated IPO that never was—the launch of Jack Ma’s Ant Group on the Shanghai and Hong Kong markets, which was scuttled in November.

Meanwhile, next year’s Chinese IPO pipeline also looks to be a crowded one, heavy on tech startups and U.S.-listed Chinese firms pursuing secondary offerings in Hong Kong or mainland China—two trends that characterized much of 2020’s IPO scene.

1) Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC)

China’s biggest semiconductor maker, SMIC, raised over $7.5 billion on Shanghai’s Star market in July. SMIC is already listed in Hong Kong, and also traded on the New York Stock Exchange before it delisted from the NYSE in 2019.

The firm is regarded as essential to the Chinese government’s goal of self-sufficiency in chipmaking. SMIC shares jumped 245% at the open on its first day of trading, reflecting investors’ eagerness to get a piece of the national chipmaking champion.

SMIC shares suffered this month, first after co-CEO Liang Mong Song abruptly resigned, and then after the U.S. government added SMIC to an export blacklist that restricts its access to U.S. technology. The company said its inclusion on the blacklist will have a “major adverse impact” on advanced technology development.

2) JD.com

JD.com, China’s second-largest e-commerce company, went public in Hong Kong in June and raked in $4.5 billion in proceeds, according to KPMG.

The float was a secondary offering for JD.com, which debuted on Nasdaq in 2014. JD.com’s New York–listed rival Alibaba Group also completed a secondary listing in Hong Kong in 2019.

JD.com’s online retail sales surged during the pandemic, but, like Alibaba, the firm is expanding into tech sectors like logistics and cloud computing.

3) Beijing-Shanghai High Speed Railway

The rail operator raised $4.4 billion in Shanghai on Jan. 16, less than two weeks before coronavirus lockdowns across China erased demand for cross-country travel and slashed the company’s passenger volume and revenue. The company’s stock has suffered accordingly.

Domestic travel in China has since rebounded to pre-coronavirus levels, so Beijing-Shanghai High Speed Railway’s end-of-year financial results may show an improvement on the firm’s half-year results, in which the operator reported a 90% year-on-year decrease in net profit.

4) JD Health

JD Health, the health care subsidiary of e-commerce giant JD.com, raised $3.5 billion before trading began when it debuted in Hong Kong earlier this month.

The IPO of tech-focused JD Health was a boon for Hong Kong; over the past two years, the stock exchange has instituted various listing reforms and launched a new tech index in an effort to attract more technology companies.

JD Health’s shares closed at around 60% above the list price on the first day of trading, indicating that Hong Kong investors are enthusiastic about Chinese “new economy” tech stocks.

5) NetEase

Gaming giant NetEase raised $3.1 billion in a Hong Kong secondary offering in June. Like JD.com, NetEase already trades on Nasdaq and saw its sales boom during the pandemic, when millions of homebound consumers turned to online gaming to pass the time under lockdown.

NetEase is China’s second-largest gaming company after Tencent. Almost 80% of its revenue comes from online gaming, while the remaining 20% comes from NetEase’s smaller live-streaming, music streaming, and online education businesses.

Ant Group—the IPO that never was

One of the most anticipated Chinese IPOs of 2020 was that of Ant Group, the fintech unicorn founded by Alibaba cofounder and billionaire Jack Ma.

Ant planned to list simultaneously in Hong Kong and Shanghai and reportedly raised as much as $37 billion, which would have sailed past Saudi Aramco’s record $29 billion 2019 debut. That means it would have been the biggest initial public offering in history—in a global display of China’s homegrown tech prowess.

But on Nov. 3, two days before Ant’s scheduled float, the Shanghai stock exchange said it was suspending Ant’s listing over concerns that it wasn’t meeting “listing qualifications or disclosure requirements.” Ant suspended the Hong Kong portion of the listing after Shanghai’s announcement.

The dramatic last-minute halt was reportedly the culmination of years of increasingly strained relations between China’s financial regulators and the famously outspoken Jack Ma, who had delivered a public speech criticizing China’s regulators and state-led banking sector in the weeks leading up to Ant’s planned IPO. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese President Xi Jinping personally decided to suspend the IPO.

Chinese regulators said they were concerned about the financial risks in Ant’s microlending business, and said Ant will need to comply with new regulatory requirements before it can pursue the listing.

Ma reportedly offered parts of Ant’s business to the Chinese government to try to salvage the IPO, which is on ice indefinitely, without a rescheduled date and amid reports that it might take until 2022 to list.

Chinese IPOs to watch in 2021

A slew of Chinese tech companies are reportedly gearing up for initial public offerings next year.

JD.com subsidiary JD Digits, a fintech firm, filed an application to list in Shanghai in September. It will likely list in 2021 and raise up to $3.1 billion. The fallout of Ant Group’s suspended IPO and the stricter rules around fintech companies brought uncertainty for JD Digits, which may have otherwise listed in 2020.

Tech giant ByteDance—the owner of TikTok and, by some measures, the most valuable unicorn in the world—is considering separate Hong Kong listings for news aggregator Toutiao and Douyin, TikTok’s mainland China sister app, according to Bloomberg.

Short-video app Kuaishou, which rivals Douyin in the mainland China market, filed for an IPO in Hong Kong that could raise up to $5 billion, which would value the startup at $50 billion. Kuaishou is reportedly aiming for a late January float.

Two Nasdaq-listed Chinese firms, short-video app Bilibili and video streaming company iQiyi, are reportedly seeking secondary offerings in Hong Kong next year. Bilibili could raise as much as $1.5 billion.

The floats would add Bilibili and iQiyi to the growing list of U.S.-listed Chinese companies pursuing secondary listings closer to home, as regulatory restrictions on U.S. exchanges get stricter for Chinese firms.