What Happened: Tech titan Jack Ma is taking a step back from his business Ant Group, which owns Alipay, the world’s largest mobile payment platform. Ma is said to be relinquishing majority control of the company after Ant Group announced it had changed its corporate voting structure to “optimize…corporate governance and achieve long-term sustainable development.”
What this means is that Ma will no longer exercise his voting rights jointly with persons acting in concert. Previously, Ma and four other persons acting in concert jointly controlled the Hangzhou Yunbo Investment Consultancy Company, which is the general partner of two companies that collectively own 53.46 percent of Ant Group.
With these changes, Ma will only hold a 20 percent share as part of an equity investment partnership controlling 31.04 percent of Ant Group. In other words, Ma’s voting power has been slashed from more than 50 percent to just 6 percent. Other individual shareholders who collectively own the two aforementioned companies will exercise their voting rights independently. This means that “no shareholder, alone or jointly with other parties, will have control over Ant Group,” even if the existing economic interests of shareholders remain intact.
The Jing Take: Ant Group’s Alipay is a critical infrastructure in China’s digital payment sector and has arguably become too enormous to be controlled by any single entity or individual in the eyes of Chinese regulators.
As observed by Chinese finance analysts, the lack of a dominant shareholder in Ant Group reflects the fintech leader’s importance to China’s digital finance industry. Alipay boasts over 1 billion users in China.
Ant Group’s reorganization also means that Chinese regulators’ years-long scrutiny of the group might be coming to an end. The probe first started in November 2020, when Ant Group’s planned IPO in Shanghai and Hong Kong was abruptly suspended. Chinese regulators summoned its leaders, including Ma, to a closed-door meeting days after Ma openly criticized Beijing for being too risk-averse in managing its financial system. Subsequently, Alibaba was fined a record $2.75 billion for anti-monopoly violations and went through a compliance overhaul under the supervision of China’s market regulators.
Since then, Ma has been lying low, refraining from making high-profile public remarks. Now that Ant Group has distanced itself from him and Alibaba, it should face fewer regulatory hurdles. In fact, on January 4, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission division in Chongqing approved Ant Group’s request to raise $1.5 billion (10.5 billion RMB) for its consumer unit.
Ant Group could also receive the green light to resume its IPO process. However, according to China and Hong Kong’s listing requirements, a company needs to wait between one to three years before applying for an IPO following a change in its actual controller. Therefore, the IPO won’t take place till at least 2024.
Foreign companies in the mainland should view Ant Group’s restructuring as a positive development. It suggests that China’s crackdown on its tech giants is easing, at least temporarily. More importantly, it shows that China is doubling down on economic growth as it seeks to exit the COVID-induced slump. This should dispel concerns that the country is pressuring private companies to prioritize political conformity.
As demonstrated by last October’s 20th National Congress, promoting “high-quality development” is front and center on Beijing’s agenda. With Beijing’s concern over Ma’s influence on Ant Group mitigated, the fintech titan should be ready to launch major growth initiatives again.
The Jing Take reports on a piece of the leading news and presents our editorial team’s analysis of the key implications for the luxury industry. In the recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debate sprouting on Chinese social media.