The Shanghai Stock Exchange suspended the initial public offering of Ant Group, the internet finance spinoff of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, an extraordinary turn of events for what had been set to be the largest share sale in history.
In a notice to Ant posted online late Tuesday, the stock exchange said that the company’s proposed offering may not meet the conditions for listing after Chinese regulators summoned company executives, including Jack Ma, the Alibaba co-founder who is also Ant’s controlling shareholder, for a meeting on Monday.
Neither the regulators nor Ant have said in detail what was discussed at the meeting. But the timing of the rendezvous, coming just days before Ant shares were expected to begin trading concurrently in Shanghai and Hong Kong, suggested discord with the company or with Mr. Ma.
Shortly after the Shanghai exchange made the announcement, Ant said it was suspending the Hong Kong leg of its listing as well. Ant did not immediately have further comment.
Over the past decade, Ant has transformed the way people in China interact with money. The company’s Alipay app has become an everyday payment tool for hundreds of millions of smartphone users, as well as a platform for obtaining small loans and buying insurance and investment products.
But in the process, Ant has challenged the dominance of China’s state-run banks and other institutions, which have long enjoyed a privileged place in the country’s financial and political system. Regulators have looked warily upon Ant’s fast growth in certain areas, fearful it might become too big to rescue in the event of a meltdown.
Ant has pivoted in response. Instead of primarily using its own money to extend loans, the company now effectively acts as an agent for banks, introducing them to individual borrowers and small businesses that they might not otherwise reach.
This business model works just fine for many of Ant’s investors, evidently. The group’s dual I.P.O. had been set to bring in at least $34 billion. The company’s market valuation after the listing, of around $310 billion, would make it worth more than many global banks.
Still, the company’s future remains at the mercy of Chinese regulators, whose views on the melding of tech and finance are still evolving.
“The regulators have long been looking at the risks in this area and how it should be regulated, but it’s all suddenly coming out at this specific time,” said Yu Baicheng, head of the Zero One Research Institute, a think tank in Beijing focused on finance and tech. “It’s definitely a statement of the regulators’ attitude.”
Also present at Monday’s meeting with the regulatory agencies were Ant’s executive chairman, Eric Jing, and its chief executive, Simon Hu. “Views regarding the health and stability of the financial sector were exchanged,” Ant said in a statement, adding that the company was “committed to implementing the meeting opinions in depth.”
In another sign of the continuing scrutiny, the nation’s banking regulator, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, on Monday issued new draft rules for online microfinance businesses. Among them were higher capital requirements for loans and tighter controls on lending across provincial lines.
Bai Chengyu, an executive at the China Association of Microfinance, said the new rules could cause the entire microfinance industry to shrink.
Mr. Ma did not ingratiate himself with the authorities when he said, in a recent speech in Shanghai, that financial regulators’ excessive focus on containing risk could stifle innovation.
“We cannot manage an airport the way we managed a train station,” he said. “We cannot use yesterday’s methods to manage the future.”
The head of consumer protection at China’s banking regulator, Guo Wuping, slapped back on Monday, calling out two popular features in Alipay by name in a sharply critical article in the 21st Century Business Herald, a government-owned newspaper.
Mr. Guo argued that online finance products were not fundamentally different from traditional ones, and that financial technology companies should therefore be regulated in the same way as established institutions.
Huabei, a credit function in Alipay, is no different from a credit card issued by a bank, Mr. Guo wrote. And Jiebei, an Alipay loan feature, is no different from a bank loan. Ant has called Huabei and Jiebei the most widely used consumer credit products in China.
Loose regulation has allowed financial technology companies to charge higher fees than banks, Mr. Guo wrote. This, he said, “has caused some low-income people and young people to fall into debt traps, ultimately harming consumers’ rights and interests and even endangering families and society.”
Ant declined to comment on Mr. Guo’s article.
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