Hong Kong – China suspended Ant Group’s $37 billion listing on Tuesday, thwarting the world’s largest stock market debut with just days to go in a dramatic blow to the financial technology firm founded by billionaire Jack Ma.
The Shanghai stock exchange said it had suspended the company’s initial public offering (IPO) on its tech-focused STAR Market, prompting Ant to also freeze the Hong Kong leg of its dual listing scheduled for Thursday.
This followed a meeting with China’s financial regulators on Monday during which Ma and his top executives were told that Ant’s lucrative online lending business would face tighter scrutiny, sources told Reuters.
The Shanghai bourse described Ant’s meeting with financial regulators as a “major event” which, along with a tougher regulatory environment, may cause Ant to be disqualified from listing.
In China, analysts interpreted the move as a slap down for Ma, who had wanted Ant to be treated as technology company rather than a highly regulated financial institution.
“The Communist Party has shown the tycoons who’s boss. Jack Ma might be the richest man in the world but that doesn’t mean a thing. This has gone from the deal of the century to the shock of the century,” Francis Lun, CEO of GEO Securities, said.
To revive its listing, Ant is trying to establish if it needs to disclose more information to the Shanghai exchange about its relationship with regulators, or if the bourse expects it to resolve all its issues with the regulators, which would take much longer, a person with knowledge of the matter said.
At an event last month attended by Chinese regulators, Ma said the financial and regulatory system stifled innovation and must be reformed to fuel growth. He also compared the Basel Committee of global banking regulators to “an old man’s club”.
Ant believes the public criticism put Ma in the crosshairs of regulators, the person said.
The suspension reverberated across markets. Alibaba Group Holding, which owns about a third of Ant, fell 9% in early U.S. trading, wiping nearly $76 billion off its value, more than double the amount Ant was planning to raise.
“This is a curve ball that has been thrown at us … I don’t know what to say,” said one banker working on the IPO.
With its unique business model and the absence of rivals in China or elsewhere, analysts say Ant has mainly thrived as a technology platform away from the banking sector’s regulations, despite its array of financial products.
But Beijing has become uncomfortable with banks increasingly using micro-lenders or third-party technology platforms such as Ant for underwriting loans amid fears of rising defaults and a deterioration in asset quality in a pandemic-hit economy.
Reuters reported last month that regulators had scrutinised banks that used Ant’s technology platform excessively for underwriting consumer loans as part of a drive to curb risks in the country’s financial sector.
The tougher regulatory focus on Ant’s cash cow and rapidly growing consumer lending business had emerged as a key concern for investors in the IPO, despite the company’s attractiveness as a financial technology player.
Ant originates demand from retail consumers and small businesses and passes that on to about 100 banks for underwriting, earning fees from the lenders with minimal risk to its own balance sheet.
Ant’s consumer lending balance was 1.7 trillion yuan ($254 billion) at the end of June, or 21% of all short-term consumer loans issued by Chinese deposit-taking financial institutions. Only 2% of the loans it had facilitated were on its balance sheet, its IPO prospectus showed.
“It’s the right move to regulate what’s essentially a financial institution as their peers. And it’s wrong not to do that in the past, and the mistake is being corrected. It will have a negative impact on pricing,” said Zhong Daqi, founding partner of Guangzhou Zeyuan Investment Management Co.
Under draft rules published on Monday by China’s central bank and banking regulator, small online lenders must provide at least 30% of any loan they fund jointly with banks.
A banker in Hong Kong close to other Chinese fintechs said those firms thought the new rules were tailor-made for Ant. The banker said Ant may have to split its businesses and make payments, micro-lending and wealth management separate units.