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Brooklyn Journal of Corporate, Financial & Commercial Law

Abstract

In September 2014, Alibaba Group Holding Limited (Alibaba) successfully launched a $25 billion initial public offering (IPO), the largest IPO ever, on New York Stock Exchange. Alibaba’s IPO success witnessed a wave among Chinese Internet companies to raise capital in U.S capital markets. A significant number of these companies have employed a novel, but poorly understood corporate ownership and control mechanism—the variable interest entity (VIE) structure and/or the disproportional control structure. The VIE structure was created in response to the Chinese restriction on foreign investments; however, it carries the risk of being declared illegal under Chinese law. The disproportional control structure, usually in the form of dual-class shares, helps founders or controlling shareholders maintain control post-IPO with less equity contribution. Around 30 percent of U.S.-listed Chinese companies adopted a dual-class share structure or similar mechanism to enhance insider control. This percentage is much higher than that of U.S. public companies, which is only about 6 percent.

This Article uses Alibaba as a case study to analyze the legal challenges posed by the VIE and disproportional control structures. Specifically, it dissects the structure of the VIE and sheds important light on inherent legal and governance risks associated with the VIE structure, along with potential policy solutions to protect investors and reduce information asymmetry. Similar to most U.S. high-tech companies that adopt dual-class share structures to maintain control by founders, Alibaba grants a partnership, consisting of its founders and executives, an exclusive right to nominate a majority of its directors. Furthermore, Alibaba implements various anti-takeover measures to strengthen insider control, many of which are considered detrimental to the interests of minority shareholders. Such excessive insider control presents a puzzle as to the success of the world’s largest IPO and casts doubt on the long-debated issue of whether corporate governance truly matters. In this Article, we argue that the idiosyncratic value brought by a charismatic founder-executive—in this case, Alibaba’s Jack Ma—together with voluntary commitments made by Ma himself in Alibaba’s prospectus, help mitigate the potential abuse inherent in disproportional insider control structures. However, the success of such a structure hinges on the reputation and commitments of specific founders and may not function to the benefit of all investors in the long run.