China set to fine Ant Group over $1.38b, signalling revamp nears end: Sources

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HONG KONG – Chinese authorities are poised to impose a fine of more than US$1 billion (S$1.38 billion) on billionaire Jack Ma’s Ant Group, said six sources with direct knowledge of the matter, setting the stage for ending the fintech company’s two-year long regulatory overhaul.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC), which has been driving the revamp at Ant after the Chinese firm’s US$37 billion IPO was scuttled at the last minute in 2020, is the regulator that is readying the fine, said five of the sources.

The central bank has been in informal communication with Ant about the fine over the past few months, said three of the sources. It plans to hold more discussions with other regulators about Ant’s revamp later this year and announce the fine as soon as the second quarter of next year, said a source.

A fine on Ant could help pave the way for the company to secure a long-awaited financial holding company licence, seek growth again, and eventually revive its plans for a public market debut.

Ant’s fine would be the largest regulatory penalty imposed on a Chinese Internet company since ride-hailing major Didi Global was fined US$1.2 billion by China’s cyber security regulator in July.

The fintech firm’s affiliate, e-commerce titan Alibaba Group, last year received a record fine of 18 billion yuan (S$3.47 billion) for antitrust violations.

US-listed shares of Alibaba slipped 1.2 per cent in morning trading.

The penalties are part of Beijing’s sweeping crackdown on the country’s tech behemoths that has sliced hundreds of billions of dollars off their values and shrunk revenues and profits.

But Chinese authorities have in recent months softened their tone on the tech crackdown amid efforts to bolster an economy that has been hurt by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A fine will likely focus on Ant’s alleged violations relating to a “disorderly expansion of capital” and the corresponding financial risks its once freewheeling businesses have caused, said one of the sources.

Ant and the PBOC did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

All the sources spoke on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Business overhaul

Chinese authorities abruptly pulled the plug on Ant’s IPO, which was set to be the world’s biggest, in November 2020 soon after Mr Ma publicly criticised China’s regulatory system for stifling innovation.

In the months since then, regulators set about reining in Mr Ma’s empire, starting with the antitrust probe into Alibaba. Mr Ma, one of China’s most successful and influential businessmen, has largely remained out of public view since the crackdown.

The regulators also pushed Ant, whose businesses span payment processing, consumer lending and insurance products distribution, to revamp its business structure and bring it under tighter regulatory supervision.

Ant has been formally undergoing a sweeping business overhaul since April last year, which includes turning itself into a financial holding firm, subject to rules and capital requirements similar to those for banks.

The overhaul includes folding Ant’s two lucrative micro-loan businesses into a consumer finance unit and sharing its treasure trove of data on more than 1 billion users with state firms, a move expected to curb its profitability and valuation by curtailing some of its businesses.

The penalty on Ant, however, is unlikely to be finalised till China appoints a number of top officials at the State Council and other government bodies next year, said four of the sources.

While China’s ruling Communist Party wrapped up its twice-a-decade congress and central leadership reshuffle last month, top posts at the Cabinet and government bodies are still subject to changes, which typically take place at the annual meeting of Parliament in early March.

The central bank’s chief, Mr Yi Gang, 64, is likely to step down as he nears the official retirement age of 65 for minister-level officials.

China’s State Council Information Office, which handles media queries for the Cabinet, did not respond to a request for comment.

Just before Ant’s IPO dust-up, the central bank officially issued rules to regulate the country’s vast and often complex financial holdings companies, as part of its efforts to rein in systemic financial risks.

It has so far approved the establishment of three such firms, including China CITIC Financial Holdings.

The central bank’s local branch in the eastern city of Hangzhou, home to Ant’s headquarters, received the firm’s application to set up a financial holding company in June, two of the six sources and a separate person said.

The PBOC, however, is unlikely to formally disclose the application till Ant wraps up its revamp, added the sources. REUTERS

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