Ant may find it easy to move on after breakup

3 minute read

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

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HONG KONG, Sept 14 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Breaking up is hard to do, but China's Ant may be able to move on quickly. Beijing wants Jack Ma's financial technology giant to separate its payments, credit scoring and lending businesses, and is diluting it with assorted government investors. But these stakeholders might be friendly, and the loan operation looks to get a wider business remit.

Officials have imposed a sweeping restructuring of Ant since derailing its initial public offering last November. At the parent level, the group, which owns the payments-to-wealth management Alipay app, is being rejigged into a financial holding company subject to tougher regulations. Further down, Ant's online credit business is now in the process of being folded into a recently-approved consumer finance company with other backers. Beijing may also pry open its massive data trove on borrower behaviour and feed at least some of it to a credit-scoring joint venture with government entities, according to Reuters.

The dilution of Ant's ownership, plus additional capital requirements and other changes, have yet to impact Alipay's more than 700 million monthly active users in China. That seems unlikely to last. Officials want its lending businesses that offer a virtual credit-card like service and unsecured loans to run over a separate app, according to the Financial Times.

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That would inconvenience Alipay users, accustomed to seamlessly taking out short-term loans with a few taps on a smartphone screen. Nor will Ant be easily able to cross-market more profitable financial services to supplement its low-margin payments business via an integrated app. Most broadly, Beijing officials appear to want to slow the overall growth of household leverage. That looks bad for business.

Even so, there are silver linings. The credit scoring venture will be with the Zhejiang Tourism Investment Group and other entities in Ant's home province – much improved from an earlier proposal which could have forced it to cooperate with rivals. Local government shareholders have financial incentives to support the business, and could also give Ant cover in Beijing. Moreover, the new consumer finance company, of which Ant owns 50%, will be able to access the inter-bank lending market and issue bonds, as well as expand beyond micro-loans into insurance and fixed income securities. If this is rock bottom for Ant, it’s a softer landing than some might have expected.

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- Chinese officials want Ant's Alipay to create a separate app for its two consumer credit businesses, the Financial Times reported on Sept. 12, citing people familiar with the matter.

- In June, Ant’s consumer finance unit won approval to begin operating in Chongqing city. Regulators had asked Ant to fold the two consumer credit businesses into this new firm, which counts Nanyang Commercial Bank, Cathay United Bank and others as investors.

- Separately, state-backed firms and Ant plan to establish a personal credit-scoring firm, Reuters reported on Sept. 1, as part of a broader restructuring ordered by regulators.

- Under the plan, Ant and Zhejiang Tourism Investment Group will each own 35% of the venture, while other state-backed partners, Hangzhou Finance and Investment Group and Zhejiang Electronic Port, will each hold slightly more than 5%, sources told Reuters.

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Editing Pete Sweeney and Katrina Hamlin

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