Jack Ma hasn’t been seen in public since Ant Group’s IPO was pulled. Here’s how Chinese regulators slammed the brakes on the firm’s would-be record-breaking $37 billion IPO.

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  • The Chinese fintech company Ant Group was ready to shatter records with a $US37 billion IPO on November 5, with a reported estimated valuation close to $US300 billion.
  • The IPO was touted as the largest in history – projected to sweep past the world’s biggest banks – and it positioned Ant as a fintech disruptor in the “stodgy” banking sector.
  • But a week after founder Jack Ma made incendiary comments publicly snubbing China’s regulatory banking rules, the eastern nation introduced a series of new regulations that clamped down on Ant’s lending business, and its IPO was suspended.
  • Experts told Business Insider that if Ant resumes its IPO, it likely won’t be for another few months. And when it does list again, Ant won’t be the hailed, prodigal fintech giant it’s been touted as, and its valuation could be “decimated” in half.
  • Jack Ma reportedly hasn’t been seen since the IPO was pulled and as Alibaba, which Ma founded, also remains entangled in an antitrust investigation.
  • Here’s why Ant Group is a big deal, and how its IPO dreams were ground to a halt within the span of a few days.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Chinese fintech firm Ant Group has gone from flying under the radar to dominating headlines in recent months, and it’s all thanks to its highly-anticipated IPO that was ready to go in November.

But Ant Group saw those record-setting dreams dashed just days before it was set to begin trading when China introduced new lending rules that threw a wrench in the company’s listing, and financial authorities suspended the offering.

The firm was expected to raise $US37 billion, and its valuation was reportedly nearing more than $US300 billion, a figure much greater than that of the world’s most established banks, like Goldman Sachs, which has a market cap of $US68 billion. The IPO attracted $US3 trillion from retail investors. Ant would have taken the title of most valuable IPO from Saudi Aramco, reflecting the ongoing shift from oil to data as the world’s most valuable resource, as The Economist notes. And the company and its IPO were poised to serve as a “stamp of approval” for the fintech market as a vessel for fast-moving disruptors in the traditional banking sector.

Experts told Business Insider that it will likely be months before Ant resumes its IPO, if it even does, and the firm has its work cut out: It will need to review the nation’s new lending rules and reapply to qualify for its dual listing. Ant Group pointed Business Insider to a statement saying that it is in close communication with Shanghai Stock Exchange officials regarding the next steps.

In December, China launched an antitrust investigation into Alibaba, which Ma also founded. And it was reported Sunday that Ma hasn’t been seen publicly in two months.

When, or if, Ant eventually emerges on the stock exchange, it won’t look exactly like the hailed fintech disruptor that it was touted as, Eric Schiffer, CEO of private equity firm The Patriarch Organisation, told Business Insider. Instead, the firm — which has largely enjoyed unfettered growth without regulatory restraint up until now — will likely be injected with more conservative banking methodology. Indeed, in late December, China ordered Ant to overhaul its financial business and “return to its payment origins.”

“This no longer looks to be a pure-play fintech but rather a fintech hybrid, with technology that enables communication and transactions overseen by traditional banking rules,” Schiffer said. “The pure-play fintech is out the window — that’s dead and buried.”

Ant Group went from gearing up for the world’s largest IPO to bending to the will of the Chinese government in a matter of days

Ant’s IPO was scheduled for November 5, and its interruption came about a week after founder Jack Ma made a series of brash comments condemning current banking regulations.

The billionaire publicly snubbed China’s financial regulatory system at a Shanghai conference on October 24, declaring the rules to be ill-suited for fostering healthy innovation. He also slammed the regulators that enforce a set of international banking rules as “an old man’s club.”

A week later, regulators suddenly introduced new regulations on online lending, which directly impacted Ant’s lucrative lending and credit business. That online aspect of the firm’s business accounts for nearly 40% of its revenue, per regulatory filings, and allows millions of Chinese residents to easily access loans via credit platforms. Ant may be forced to spin in out due to the regulations, as The Information reported.

“Regulators don’t want to have this giant unregulated fintech machine which intermediates multi-trillions of loans that are not secured without a very rigorous capital and banking methodology that’s conservative in nature,” Schiffer said. “And the reason for that is the whole thing could go Kaboom.”

Officials said there were “major issues” with Ant’s listing under the new rules, and the Shanghai exchange suspended Ant’s IPO on November 3. The company willingly pulled its listing in Hong Kong on the same day.

Ant already has a tumultuous relationship with state-owned banks and has attempted to shift its image away from that of a financial company to avoid being seen as a competitor. The nature of Ant’s business as a private fintech firm afforded it freedom from the regulations that are forced upon more traditional financial institutions in the nation, but Ant has veered into the business of Chinese banks by siphoning off millions of customers.

While China may have sprung the newly drafted rules on Ant in early November, its mission to reign in fintech began long before that. It also doesn’t help “when Jack is disrespecting members of the governing body in an environment in which they hold all the cards,” Schiffer said.

So now, China will likely play a heavier role in Ant’s operations, following the Chinese Communist Party’s long track record of inserting itself into private companies, as The Guardian goes into in greater depth.

“At the core, the reason this is all happening is so the government can assert its supremacy over Jack Ma,” Blair Silverberg, CEO of the debt-financing startup Capital, told Business Insider, adding that Ma’s pointed commentary only incited regulators more.

Jack ma xi jinping
Jack Ma shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit at Microsoft’s main campus September 23, 2015 in Redmond, Washington. Ted S. Warren-Pool/Getty Images

Ant’s widely-reported multibillion-dollar valuation could be ‘decimated’ when or if it resumes an IPO in the future

Ant’s IPO initially signalled that the firm had further “lit the torch of the fintech war,” Schiffer said, setting off “an economic earthquake with traditional competitors” in the “stodgy” banking sector by using “a fintech algorithm-first model that understands how people communicate digitally.”

At a reported estimated valuation of around $US300 billion and an anticipated raise of $US37 billion, Ant’s IPO was due to put the company in league with the world’s most established banks, if not past them — JP Morgan’s market cap sits at $US293 billion.

But Ant’s suspended IPO by China’s firm hand renders that future murky, as the firm attempts to readjust itself to comply with the nation’s new rules. Schiffer said doing so might require Ant to hold significantly more capital, which could majorly alter its business model that has been successful up to this point, causing Ant’s celebrated $US300 billion valuation to be “decimated” if it decides to list in the future.

“You may be looking at a third to a half of what they were talking about,” Schiffer said, which could amount to a valuation of $US100 to $US150 billion.

But on the other hand, Silverberg said the company could still host the world’s largest IPO when it does eventually resume, given Ant’s growth trajectory and after its fundamental business is re-examined.

“They’re not going to be valued like a bank,” Silverberg said. “That’s not going to happen. The realistic picture is nothing has changed at all.”

Why Ant Group and its crown jewel, Alipay, are a big deal

Beyond its lending operations, Ant has positioned itself to be “critical to consumers every day” through its prized Alipay app, Matthew Schopfer, head of research at the investment firm Infusive Asset Management, told Business Insider. And with more than 1 billion Chinese citizens using the company’s services, Ant is effectively a large part of the country’s financial system.

Alipay ant group
Americans are able to download Alipay in app stores, but a company spokesperson said US consumers can’t use it without a Chinese bank account, Ng Han Guan/AP

Alipay allows users to pay people, store money in a checking account, make investments, buy insurance, receive financing, get a credit card, and make payments on it, and even hail a taxi. You can also use the app to make payments at restaurants and other businesses via QR codes, which has aided its widespread adoption in China.

For those services, Ant’s platform is “using data” to democratize the credit system — its algorithm can provide credit to those that would not normally even qualify based upon traditional creditworthiness risk profile, Schiffer explained.

Alipay is like a one-stop-shop for handling financial milestones from adolescence into retirement, Silverberg said. Your parents could give you an allowance through the app, you could get your first credit card through it, buy a car, and pick auto insurance.

“There’s no Progressive or Geico,” Silverberg said. “None of the 30-plus stops that you stopped at along the way of your financial life. You don’t make any of those, it all happens through the app.”

For now, Americans won’t have access to Ant’s do-everything app, and the new regulatory hurdles posed in China don’t necessarily mean Ant will turn its eyes to list in New York, either. If anything, Silverberg said, such a move could make Ant’s precarious situation back home even more unsteady.

“That risk only gets exacerbated if Jack Ma further slaps China in the face by listing on an international exchange,” Silverberg said.