The Chinese government on Monday ordered billionaire Jack Ma to break up his financial services empire, reducing his Ant Group down to its “origins” as a payment services provider.
The move will decisively neutralize Ma’s growing power and eliminate him as a threat to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and dictator Xi Jinping.
The humiliation of Ma began when Chinese regulators blocked the stock market debut of the Ant Group in early November, sinking what would have been the largest IPO in history. The campaign accelerated last week with a high-profile antitrust investigation of Ma’s tech company, Alibaba.
The UK Guardian quoted a Chinese central banking official decreeing the Ant Group must “return to its origins” as a payment processing spinoff from Alibaba because the gigantic financial corporation’s management is “not sound.”
Ant was further ordered to “strictly rectify illegal credit, insurance, and wealth management financial activities,” which is essentially an order to shut down or scale back all of the operations that helped Ant grow to its current enormous size.
The Ant Group meekly responded that it will put together a “rectification working group” to “fully implement” the new regulations in a “timely manner” while eagerly seeking “guidance” from government officials.
“We will enlarge the scope and magnitude of opening up for win-win collaboration, review and rectify our work in consumer rights protection, and comprehensively improve our business compliance and sense of social responsibility,” the company said.
The Guardian saw Monday’s developments as the CCP winning its power struggle against China’s tech billionaires by making an example out of Ma, who has lost over $10 billion since he dared to criticize CCP financial policies in October and is no longer China’s richest man:
The latest salvo in Beijing’s battle against Ma — who had been feted as China’s greatest modern-day entrepreneur until he started speaking out against strict regulations — wiped 8% off the value of Alibaba’s share price in Hong Kong trading on Monday.
Alibaba’s shares have lost more than a quarter of their value since 24 October, when Ma accused China’s financial regulators and state-owned banks of operating a “pawnshop” mentality at a high-profile summit in Shanghai.
Chinese Communist party officials hit back, accusing Ma’s company’s of breaching various regulations and intervened to block the $37bn (£27bn) flotation of Ant Group just two days before dealing was due to begin in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Virtually all observers agree Ma’s speech in Shanghai on October 24 brought Chinese regulators crashing down on the tech sector. Ma said Beijing was stifling innovation with heavy-handed regulatory policies, and the regime responded by showing Ma and his colleagues just how heavy their hands could be.
Several analysts told the Guardian that Ma’s thrashing at the hands of CCP regulators probably isn’t over yet, and other tech giants are feeling the regulatory lash as well, leading to lower share prices across the board.
This is evidently a price the CCP is willing to pay to reassert political control over the high-flying tech sector. As analyst Bill Bishop put it, “The party has once again reminded all private entrepreneurs that no matter how rich and successful you are it can pull the rug out from under your feet at any time.”
The Chinese central bank announced Tuesday that the Ant Group will set up a “financial holding firm” to manage its vast array of banking and finance operations.
Bloomberg News anticipated the new arrangement could be “crippling” for Ant’s fastest-growing assets:
The operations that Ant is looking to fold into the holding company include wealth management services, consumer lending, insurance, payments and MYbank, an online lender in which Ant is the largest shareholder, the people said. Under the financial holding company structure, Ant’s businesses would likely be subject to more capital restrictions, potentially curbing its ability to lend more and expand at the pace of the last few years.
Chinese regulators on Sunday ordered Ant to devise a plan to overhaul its business, the latest in a series of steps to rein in Ma’s online finance empire. While it stopped short of directly asking for a breakup of the company, the central bank stressed Ant needed to “understand the necessity of overhauling its business” and come up with a timetable as soon as possible.
“Its growth would slow a lot,” said Francis Chan, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst in Hong Kong. The valuation of the non-payment businesses, including wealth management and consumer lending, could be slashed by as much as 75%, he said.
Bloomberg estimated the restructuring will knock Ant’s value below $153 billion, effectively erasing the past two years of mammoth gains. In an interesting coincidence, the $11 billion of new capital required to comply with the new regulations happens to be the same as Ant’s estimated cash on hand, as of the last quarter. The restructured Ant Group will be considerably less liquid than the empire Jack Ma presided over when he took the podium to criticize China’s financial bureaucracy in October.