China halted Ant Group Co.’s $35 billion share sale, shocking investors who’d lined up for a piece of what was expected to be the world’s biggest initial public offering.
Authorities on Tuesday said that the much-anticipated debut couldn’t go ahead because there had been “significant change” in the regulatory environment, though they didn’t provide more details. The decision also led to the postponement of Ant’s Hong Kong listing, casting doubt on the future of one of China’s best-known companies.
Ant Group, a 2010 offshoot of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., has long been seen as a champion of China’s economy and an example of how the Communist Party has allowed entrepreneurs -- especially in the technology sector -- to flourish within its top-down political system. The setback may cast a pall over the country’s financial markets, even as President Xi Jinping tries to create stock exchanges that can rival the U.S.
There were warning signs on Monday when Jack Ma, Ant’s billionaire co-founder, was summoned to a rare joint meeting with the country’s central bank and three other top financial regulators and told his firm would face increased scrutiny and be subject to the same restrictions on capital and leverage similar to banks.
“This further reinforces the regulatory pressures building on tech giants,” said Nader Naeimi, head of dynamic markets at AMP Capital Investors Ltd. in Sydney. “It’s good news for banks, bad news for Jack Ma,” he said, referencing the competitive threat Ant poses traditional lenders.
A representative for Ant didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The company’s debut was expected for Thursday. Alibaba, which owns about a third of Ant and is listed in the U.S., was down 6.3% at 11:20 a.m. in New York.
The IPO was on pace to break records for investor interest. It had attracted at least $3 trillion of orders from individual investors for its dual listing in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and in the preliminary price consultation of its Shanghai IPO, institutional investors subscribed for over 76 billion shares, more than 284 times the initial offering tranche.
The fintech company’s IPO would have given it a market value of about $315 billion based on filings, bigger than JPMorgan Chase & Co. and four times larger than Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
“It’s definitely surprising,” said Mike Bailey, director of research at FBB Capital Partners. “If there is something strange going on on the macro side for China’s financial markets or in the company that would be worrisome. That would be like for instance if we had some problem with Amazon. I would view that as a meaningful problem for them. This could be something that feeds back into global markets.”
Ant has faced scrutiny in Chinese state media in recent days after Ma criticized local and global regulators for stifling innovation and not paying sufficient heed to development and opportunities for the young. At a Shanghai conference late last month, he compared the Basel Accords, which set out capital requirements for banks, to a club for the elderly.
At a meeting over the weekend of the Financial Stability and Development Committee, presided over by Vice Premier Liu He, officials stressed the need for fintech firms to be regulated.
Ant said following its meeting with regulators that it will “implement the meeting opinions in depth” and follow guidelines including stable innovation, an embrace of supervision and service to the real economy.
The Hangzhou-based company dominates China’s payments market via the Alipay app. It also runs the giant Yu’ebao money market fund and the country’s largest online consumer lending platform. Other businesses include a credit scoring unit and an insurance marketplace.