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Jack Ma’s Ant Group: World’s biggest market debut suspended

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image captionJack Ma’s Ant shares are reportedly worth $17bn

The stock market debut by Chinese tech giant Ant Group has been abruptly halted.

Ant, backed by Jack Ma, billionaire founder of e-commerce platform Alibaba, was set to sell shares worth about $34.4bn (£26.5bn) on Thursday.

The listing in Shanghai and Hong Kong would have been the biggest stock market debut to date.

But Chinese authorities have cited “major issues” as the reason behind the eleventh hour suspension.

Ant runs Alipay, the main online payment system in China, where cash, cheques and credit cards have long been eclipsed by e-payment devices and apps.

media captionHow a little Ant became a financial giant

Alipay says the total volume of payments on its platforms in China for the year ending in June was $17.6tn.

Shares of Alibaba plunged 9.6% on Wednesday as investors reacted to the share listing suspension.

However, Mr Ma and two top executives were asked to attend a meeting with financial regulators on Monday where they were told Ant’s online lending business faces more government scrutiny, Reuters news agency reported.

The Shanghai stock exchange said on Tuesday that “major issues”, including Ant’s report of changes to the regulatory environment, meant Ant no longer met “listing conditions or information disclosure requirements”.

The Hong Kong exchange then reported that Ant had decided to suspend its planned listing.

The share price was set on Monday amid reports of very strong demand from major investors.

Ant was due to sell about 11% of its shares. But the pricing valued the whole business at about $313bn.

The previous largest debut was Saudi Aramco’s $29.4bn float last December.

What was meant to be the world’s biggest initial public offering has now been squashed by Chinese regulators.

In his prospectus letter, Ant’s executive chairman, Eric Jing, had waxed lyrical about how the company is revolutionising the future of money.

But perhaps what he and Jack Ma – the billionaire founder of Alibaba and the largest controlling shareholder in Ant – didn’t factor in is how ultimately, no matter revolutionary your business is, if it’s operating in China, it still needs the blessing of Chinese regulators.

The firm’s executives and Mr Ma were called in by Chinese authorities ostensibly for a discussion on regulating the sprawling fintech firm.

But media reports indicate the meeting may have also been an opportunity to address comments Mr Ma made at a fintech conference last month.

Mr Ma compared traditional banks to “pawn shops”, lauding the merits of the digital banking system instead. He said future lending decisions should be based on data, not collateral.

That is likely to have set off alarm bells for Chinese officials. Ant collects vast amounts of data from its customers – data that the Chinese government doesn’t have immediate access to, unless it asks for it.

China is extremely supportive of Chinese companies. It’s a criticism levelled at it by other countries.

But in return, Beijing also expects a degree of control over Chinese companies that you wouldn’t normally see in other countries.

Jack Ma’s digital empire is increasingly veering outside that circle of control. Suspending this listing may serve as reminder of who really calls the shots.

Alibaba said it would be “proactive in supporting Ant Group to adapt to and embrace the evolving regulatory framework”.

“We have full confidence in Ant Group colleagues’ ability to do a good job. Society has high expectations for Alibaba.

“We will continue to work hard to not only meet but exceed expectations and fulfil our responsibility to society,” the Chinese tech giant said.

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