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China opens door to Ant Group’s stock market debut

Jack Ma giving a thumbs up
Jack Ma giving a thumbs up

China’s central bank governor has signalled that the door remains open for Ant Group’s stock market debut.

Ant, backed by billionaire founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Jack Ma, was set to list its shares in November.

Regulators suspended the listing and the People’s Bank of China later ordered a major shake-up at Alibaba.

Questions also grew about Mr Ma’s whereabouts, after he missed a television engagement earlier this month.

Last week, he made his first appearance since regulators cracked down on his business empire, speaking to a group of teachers via video-conferencing software as part of a charity event.

Bank governor Gang Yi has suggested that Ant Group’s share market listing could be reconsidered under the right circumstances.

Chinese tech giant Ant Group was set to sell shares worth about $34.4bn (£26.5bn) before it was abruptly halted. The listings in Shanghai and Hong Kong would have been the biggest stock market debut to date.

“I’d say that you just follow the standard of legal instruction, you will have the result,” Yi said on Tuesday, speaking at a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum on Tuesday.

‘Complicated issue’

Mr Yi described the decision to stop the listing of Ant Group as a “complicated issue”.

Ant Group is China’s biggest payments provider, with more than 730 million monthly users on its digital payments service Alipay.

The company also has a consumer lending division, which takes fees from banks to match borrowers with lending services.

Mr Ma raised the ire of Chinese government officials at a financial technology conference in October, when he likened China’s state-dominated banking sector to “pawn shops” and lamented their lack of innovation.

Some saw the government’s crackdown on Mr Ma’s business empire as a vengeful communist party lashing out at the outspoken businessman.

Central bank governor Yi Gang
Central bank governor Yi Gang

But the government has been grappling with new technologies and their possible implications for the stability of China’s financial system, and reforming the sector is a long-standing policy goal.

Financial technology companies have opened up China’s financial system, and have given more options to smaller borrowers, but the changes have created some possible risks, Mr Yi said.

“That benefit is obvious, but at the same time we can see also some risks to consumer information and protection and also some monopoly potential and also some misuse of the monopoly power,” he added.

Shifting rich list

While the Ant Group has come under intense regulatory scrutiny, its tech rival Tencent has surged on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

The company neared a trillion dollar valuation earlier this week, helping Tencent’s founder Pony Ma become China’s second wealthiest man.

Tencent has a very profitable gaming business, and it is also one of Ant’s competitors in the payments business.

Pony Ma leapfrogged both Jack Ma and Colin Huang, the founder of Alibaba’s e-commerce rival Pinduoduo.

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