SAN FRANCISCO - Alibaba Group, the king of e-commerce in China, is dangling a deal that could turn into one of the biggest IPOs in history.
In a long-awaited move Tuesday, Alibaba filed for an initial public offering of stock in the U.S. that could surpass the $16 billion that Facebook and its early investors raised in the social networking company's IPO two years ago.
Alibaba's paperwork says it will raise at least $1 billion, but finance professionals believe that is a notional figure to get the IPO process rolling and say that the Chinese company's ambitions for the share sale are much richer.
In this May 21, 2012 file photo, men walk past the corporate logo at the headquarters compound of Alibaba Group in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province. Alibaba Group is aiming to raise $1 billion in a long-awaited IPO likely to have ripple effects across the Internet. The Tuesday filing sets the stage for the technology industry's biggest initial public offering since short messaging service Twitter and its early investors collected $1.8 billion in its stock market debut last fall.
"This is going to be the granddaddy of all IPOs," predicted Sam Hamadeh, CEO of PrivCo, which researches privately held corporations.
Although it's not well-known in the United States, Alibaba is an e-commerce powerhouse that makes more money than Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc. combined. It has helped drive the rise of e-commerce in China, a transformation that has given millions of households greater access to clothes, books and consumer electronics in a society that in the 1980s still required ration tickets for some supermarket items.
Shopping online has become even more popular as smartphones give more Chinese easy access to a computer. Alibaba's launch of an online payment system, Alipay, filled the gap for the shoppers who lacked credit cards. Still growing at an explosive rate, online shopping is forecast by consulting firm McKinsey to triple from 2011 levels to $400 billion a year by 2015.
Alibaba is also expanding at a rapid clip as its network of online services, including Taobao, Tmall and Alipay mine a Chinese Internet market that already has 618 million Web surfers, roughly twice the size of the U.S. population. Taobao is an online shopping bazaar similar to eBay while Tmall serves as an online outlet for brands sold by major retailers.
Last year, 231 million customers bought $248 billion in merchandise on Alibaba's e-commerce sites, according to the IPO documents. About $37 billion, or 15 percent, of that was through mobile devices.
For now, Alibaba isn't specifying how much stock will be sold in the IPO, or setting a price range or saying which U.S. exchange its stock will trade on. Those details will emerge as the IPO progresses. The process is likely to take three to four months before Alibaba's shares begin trading.
One of the reasons Alibaba may set a new IPO fundraising bar is because one of its major shareholders, Yahoo Inc., is supposed to sell about 208 million shares, too.
Credit and debit card processor Visa Inc. holds the record for the richest IPO in the U.S. at more than $19 billion, according to the research firm Dealogic. State-owned Agricultural Bank of China's IPO in 2010 on exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai is the world's biggest at $22 billion in final proceeds.
Most of Alibaba is currently owned by four shareholders: Japan's SoftBank Corp., with a 34 percent stake; Yahoo, with 23 percent; former CEO and co-founder Jack Ma with 8.9 percent; and vice chairman and co-founder Joseph Tsai with 3.6 percent.