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Exclusive: China's Ant to hive off credit data in revamp; sees IPO in 2 years - sources

(Reuters) - Ant Group Co plans to spin off its consumer-credit data operations, people with knowledge of the matter said, a concession to aggressive regulators that should help the Chinese fintech giant get its massive public share sale back on track.

FILE PHOTO: A logo of Ant Group is pictured at the headquarters of the company, an affiliate of Alibaba, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 29, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

Hiving off the treasure trove of data on more than 1 billion people is a key part of Ant’s business overhaul in response to a regulatory crackdown that resulted in the abrupt suspension of its $37 billion initial public offering (IPO), which would have been the world’s biggest, the people told Reuters.

The data spinoff, along with Ant’s conversion to a more strictly regulated financial holding company, will mean the affiliate of e-commerce behemoth Alibaba Group Holding Ltd could proceed with the IPO within two years, two other people said.

Ant’s restructuring plan, which Reuters reported on Wednesday, could ease billionaire founder Jack Ma’s regulatory woes. The mammoth credit information and rating operations, as a separate unit, will also be subjected to regulatory supervision, said two of the sources.

“Ant’s financial holding firm will be granted the license from the PBOC and will be allowed to go public after the overhaul,” one of the people said, referring to the People’s Bank of China, the central bank.

The plans are not final and are subject to change, cautioned the people, who asked not to be named as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Ant declined to comment. The PBOC, which is leading regulatory efforts on Ant’s restructuring, did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment.

PBOC Governor Yi Gang, asked last week about a revival of Ant’s IPO, replied, “I’d say that you just follow the standard of legal instruction, you will have the result.”

‘BIGGER AND STRONGER’

The regulatory crackdown on Ma’s business empire in China, where he commands a cult-like reverence, followed an Oct. 24 speech in which he blasted the country’s regulatory system. Ant pulled its IPO just days before the Hong Kong and Shanghai dual debut was scheduled.

Authorities launched an antitrust probe into the tech sector, with Alibaba taking much of the heat, and pushed Ant to revamp its business structure to bring it under tighter regulatory supervision. The garrulous Ma disappeared from public view for three months.

The planned tighter regulation of Ant will give it a market value in line with financial institutions, far lower than its initially envisioned valuation as a fintech company.

Alibaba’s share price is down 15% from the IPO halt, although it has recouped much of its early plunge as Ma has re-emerged and the outlook for the Ant listing has improved.

Ant, which began as Alibaba’s payments arm, sits on an enormous cache of consumer data. That is the backbone of China’s internet platforms, with companies offering financial products from consumer loans to investment products via smartphones.

Big platforms have been hesitant to share or hand over their data to credit agencies run or backed by regulators.

Spinning off Ant’s consumer data - a possible template for its Chinese peers - will bring its main business-data operations under one unit, making regulatory oversight easier.

Ant offers limited borrower information to about 100 banks, collecting “technology service fees” - typically a hefty 30%-40% cut of the interest on loans it facilitates, analysts estimate.

Regulators have warned online companies to protect user data as the government tightens rules for fintech firms that collect and use personal data in financial services.

The PBOC last month issued draft rules clarifying the scope of information and businesses to be included in credit scoring regulation and urging agencies to apply for licenses and not to over-collect user data.

Ant’s mega-app Alipay collects data from more than two-thirds of China’s 1.4 billion people, many of them young and without credit cards or sufficient credit records with banks, as well as from 80 million merchants, according to the company’s prospectus and analysts.

Ant runs Zhima Credit - the name means “Sesame” - one of China’s biggest private credit-rating platforms, with proprietary algorithms to score people and small businesses based on their use of Ant-linked services.

The holding company, which will include Ant’s payment processing and technology offerings in areas like blockchain and food delivery, will also hold Ant’s equity investments in other companies, one of the people said.

Ant’s businesses, especially lucrative ones, have to be tightly regulated to prevent the loss of personal information and avoid systematic financial risks, he said, adding the regulators believe it can still be “bigger and stronger.”

Reporting by Julie Zhu, Yingzhi Yang, Kane Wu, Cheng Leng, Engen Tham; Writing by Sumeet Chatterjee; Editing by William Mallard

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