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China's Ant Group facing regulatory pressure ahead of record IPO

Dan Martin
·3-min read
Ant Group chief chairman Jack Ma was summoned with other executives to meet central bank and regulatory officials
Ant Group chief chairman Jack Ma was summoned with other executives to meet central bank and regulatory officials

Fintech giant Ant Group is facing growing Chinese pressure over potential risks in its online lending business, with co-founder Jack Ma and other executives summoned to an unusual meeting with regulators just ahead of its record-breaking IPO this week.

The firm's Alipay platform has helped revolutionise commerce and personal finance in China, with consumers using the smartphone app to pay for everything from meals to groceries and travel tickets.

But Ant Group, which has more than 700 million monthly active users, has also caused concern in China's state-controlled finance sector by venturing into personal and consumer lending, wealth management and insurance.

Regulators and state media have recently issued a number of warnings about potential financial instability that could result from Ant Group's rapid growth, suggesting official unease as the company prepares to list in Shanghai and Hong Kong on Thursday in the biggest IPO in history.

Ma, Ant Group chairman Eric Jing, and chief executive Simon Hu were summoned Monday to meet representatives of the central bank, the country's banking and securities regulators and the foreign exchange watchdog, according to a government statement. 

It said only that they had "regulatory talks" but described the discussions with a Chinese term used when someone is summoned for a dressing-down.

It follows new state regulations to contain potential risks in China's growing online lending industry, a sector Ant Group has aggressively moved into.

It remains to be seen how much impact the pressure may have on the share issue, which has global investors salivating.  

"Regulatory risks are the biggest risk factor for Ant Group," Kevin Kwek, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said in a note, according to Bloomberg News.

"We think the news will only be incrementally negative to the listing and believe most investors will remain optimistic on Ant's positive long-term prospects."

Ma, one of China's richest and most powerful business figures as well as Ant Group's controlling shareholder, has also faced state media criticism for comments in late October in which he boasted of the size of the IPO and appeared to criticise regulators for stifling fintech innovation.

An Ant Group statement on the meeting with regulators said "views regarding the health and stability of the financial sector were exchanged", but otherwise gave few details.

"Ant Group is committed to implementing the meeting opinions in depth," the statement said.

A Sunday commentary in the state-controlled Financial News warned of internet giants like Ant Group getting too big, saying any resulting systemic problems "will lead to serious risk contagion".

Other commentaries have urged tighter regulation of Ant Group's online lending.

The share sale is set to exceed $34 billion, beating the $29 billion chalked up by previous record-holder Saudi Aramco last December.

Beijing has called on national flagships of the tech sector to list on domestic stock exchanges rather than fundraise in the US, in a period of sharp economic and political rivalry.

dma/rox/dan/rma