IPO hopes rise as Ant reportedly reaches restructuring deal

New arrangement expected to smooth fintech giant's relationship with regulators, and possibly rekindle hopes of a stock exchange listing; follows news that Alibaba plans to relaunch $5bn bond

by Mark McCord and Jon Macaskill
IPO hopes rise as Ant reportedly reaches restructuring deal

(ATF) There may be light at the end of Ant Group’s IPO tunnel.

Founder Jack Ma’s fintech behemoth has agreed a restructuring plan with Chinese regulators, according to Bloomberg News. Under the arrangement, Ant will be turned into a financial holding company, potentially a major step towards easing its regulatory woes.

Bloomberg's report said Ant was still exploring opportunities to revive its stock market debut after the company abruptly pulled a dual listing in Hong Kong and China. 

The news comes after Asia Times Financial reported that ant’s parent Alibaba is set to launch a $5 billion bond that was delayed as debate raged over regulation of the firm and the future of Ma. Decent quarterly results announced on Tuesday should allow the debt sale to go ahead and the firm has filed with US regulators for a four-part bond.

The Bloomberg report cited one person familiar with the matter. It said it was unclear how long authorities would need to sign off on a listing.

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The plan calls for putting all of Ant's businesses into the financial holding company, including its technology offerings in areas like blockchain and food-delivery, according to the report, which cited people familiar with the matter. 

An announcement about the restructuring, which will result in the company being subject to capital requirements similar to those for banks, could come before the start of China's Lunar New Year holiday on Feb. 11, the Bloomberg report said.

An agreement on the restructuring of Ant, an affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, would ease investor concerns about a regulatory crackdown on billionaire Ma's business empire.

The catalyst for Ma's current woes was an October 24 speech in which he blasted China's regulatory system, leading to the suspension of Ant's $37 billion initial public offering just days before its dual-listing in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Antitrust probe

Regulators have since launched an anti-trust probe into the tech sector with Alibaba taking much of the heat, besides pushing Ant to revamp its business structure to bring it under tighter regulatory supervision.

Ma, who is not known for shying away from the limelight, subsequently disappeared from the public eye for about three months, triggering frenzied speculation about his whereabouts. He re-emerged last month with a 50-second video appearance. 

Despite the agreement with the regulator on revamping Ant, whose businesses include payment processing, consumer lending and insurance products distribution, the anti-trust probe into Alibaba would continue to cloud the outlook for Ma's empire. 

Ant's financial holding structure is expected to weigh on its valuation, as the fintech firm was valued as a technology firm in its previous fundraising rounds. Typically, valuations are much higher on technology firms than on financial companies. 

Ant declined to comment on the Bloomberg report. China's central bank did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment. 

Alibaba's Hong Kong-listed shares closed 0.4% higher on Wednesday. They had tumbled early in the session after the company reported third-quarter results and warned it faced a near-term challenge from changing regulations.

It also warned that Ant's business prospects and IPO plans "are subject to substantial uncertainties". 

"Currently, we are unable to make a complete and fair assessment of the impact that these changes and uncertainties will have on Alibaba Group," it said.

  • Reporting by Reuters