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4 Things Alibaba’s IPO Tells Us About a Changing World Economy

An employee is seen behind a glass wall with the logo of Alibaba at the company's headquarters on the outskirts of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province
Chance Chan—Reuters An employee is seen behind a glass wall at Alibaba's headquarters on the outskirts of Hangzhou, China, on April 23, 2014

The Chinese e-commerce giant launches one of the largest stock-market debuts in history — and points the way to our economic future

The story of Alibaba has already become legend. Fifteen years ago, Jack Ma, a former English teacher, and his co-founders set up their Internet company in an apartment in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai. Today, Alibaba’s online shopping sites in China — mainly Taobao and Tmall — handle twice as much merchandise as Amazon. The company’s initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange will bring in a haul of some $21.8 billion — bigger than Facebook’s — and values Alibaba at $168 billion — four times more than Yahoo.

When Alibaba’s shares start trading Friday, history will be made. And not just in the world of tech or stock markets. Alibaba’s IPO represents some much bigger trends shaping the world economy. Here are four things the IPO tells us about our economic future:

1. More and more of the world’s most prominent companies will be from the developing world.
We still have this image of China as one big factory floor where millions of poor people slog away on assembly lines churning out cut-rate toys, clothes and electronics. Sure, there are still factories like that, but ever more that low-cost manufacturing center guise is becoming the Old China. The world’s most populous nation is developing so rapidly that it is already producing companies that are major players in all sorts of industries. Lenovo is now the largest PC maker in the world, while Huawei is challenging the best of the West in telecom equipment.

Alibaba takes this trend to an entirely new level — out of manufacturing and into the realm of technology and services. Ma and his executive team have created a company that can be named in the same sentence as tech titans like Facebook and eBay. And Alibaba is not unique. Shenzhen-based Tencent, which operates the popular WeChat messaging service, is yet another Chinese Internet firm with global potential. The fact is the most powerful companies in the U.S. and Europe will increasingly have to contend with Chinese companies exploding onto the world stage. And China may be in the lead among the world’s emerging economies in this trend, but it is not alone. India has produced some IT firms that can compete with the world’s best, such as TCS and Infosys.

2. Emerging markets are creating blue chips.
Ever since the idea of investing in the developing world became popular in the early 1990s, there has been a line drawn between these “emerging markets” and the more established bourses of the U.S., Europe and Japan. Emerging markets were supposed to be riskier, where only the bolder of investors would dare tread, compared with the supposedly more trustworthy and less volatile options in New York City and London. The Alibaba IPO shows how that great wall is breaking down. That a company based in a town like Hangzhou can raise more money in its IPO than one based in Menlo Park, Calif., (Facebook) shows that investors are starting to treat firms from the developing world on par with those in the developed world. Of course, the stigma staining companies from China and elsewhere won’t go away overnight — Chinese companies that have listed in New York City have had a sad history of accounting disasters. But going forward, your stock portfolio is going to hold more companies with addresses in Shanghai, Mumbai, Istanbul and São Paulo.

3. Consumers in the developing world will rule the world.
The story of the global economy since the end of World War II has gone something like this: capitalizing on better transport and communications technology, world production shifted en masse to poor countries from rich countries like the U.S. Factories replaced rice paddies in South Korea, China, Indonesia and elsewhere, which then shipped the mobile phones, computers and sneakers manufactured there to store shelves in the U.S. and Europe. The billions of people in these poorer nations couldn’t afford much of the stuff they made.

Now the global economy is “rebalancing.” Consumption in the U.S. and Europe is constrained by weaker job prospects and stagnant wages, while disposable income in China and other developing nations is increasing in leaps and bounds. That is making consumers in these countries the new engine of global economic growth. If the U.S. consumer dominated the 20th century, the Chinese and Indian consumer will control the 21st.

Alibaba is a prime example of the power of these new, emerging consumers. In 2013, Chinese shoppers bought $248 billion of stuff on Alibaba’s retailing websites. Compare that to an estimated $110 billion worth of good purchased on Amazon — globally. Increasingly, it will be companies that sell to households in Beijing, New Delhi and Jakarta that will dominate global consumer industries.

4. Your next job may be at a Chinese or Indian company.
Jack Ma has said that he plans to use some of his multibillion haul from the IPO to expand Alibaba’s presence in the U.S. and Europe. This, too, is part of a trend. Companies from developing markets are becoming more important investors around the world. According to the American Enterprise Institute, Chinese companies have invested more than $500 billion around the world since 2005 — with the U.S. the top destination.

And as companies from China, India and other emerging economies become ever bigger and bigger global investors, they will become bigger and bigger global employers. Firms like Lenovo, Huawei, carmakers Geely and Tata, appliance maker Haier and a host of others already employ thousands between them around the world. Going forward, you might just find your best job opportunity is at a company like Alibaba, based in China, rather than a firm in New York City, Paris or Frankfurt.

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