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Breakingviews – Ant’s IPO delay flags a recurring headache

Reuters
Reuters

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) – Technology firms, particularly finance-focused ones in China, are used to operating at the cutting edge of regulation. But overconfidence is always a risk, as Chinese fintech champion Ant <IPO-ANTG.HK> has discovered after watchdogs started probing its initial public offering process.

Regulators are looking into potential conflicts of interest after the company’s Alipay app was designated as the only way retail investors could subscribe to five mutual funds set up to buy into the Shanghai portion of the IPO, Reuters reported on Tuesday citing sources. The float, split between Shanghai and Hong Kong, has been expected to raise up to $35 billion this month, but this might delay approval from the China Securities Regulatory Commission, which will in turn stall clearance from Hong Kong watchdogs.

The issue is unlikely to derail what might end up being the world’s biggest IPO. And it’s not clear what precisely is bothering officials; Chinese funds operate under tight scrutiny, and they would likely needed approval to launch a big fund drive like this. Yet recent guidelines do call for better disclosure on how and under what terms funds operate with online partners.

Investors and rival wealth managers have cause to feel annoyed. The company has been working to an extremely tight timeline, which probably pushed the funds to conduct online-only fundraising. But nothing stopped Ant from allowing a more open subscription process and letting other brokers collect orders, as might typically happen. The nature of Ant’s business naturally produces regular run-ins with regulators. It flourishes by rolling out new products and services in legally untested areas like online payments and wealth management; its Yu’e Bao money market fund went from nothing to become the world’s largest in just a few years. Beijing has tended to wait and watch how Ant has developed this market or that, weigh its impact on other banks, then implement restraints.

Ant has proven itself nimble, but there was no compelling need for it to rush its IPO while experimenting with new procedures. Now it is paying the price.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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