Ant and China banks are reining in joint loans to consumers

Ant Group's restructuring plan marks the first big step in what's expected to be a lengthy overhaul process.
Ant Group's restructuring plan marks the first big step in what's expected to be a lengthy overhaul process.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Ant Group and at least a dozen banks are paring back their years-long cooperation on consumer lending platforms that fuel the spending of at least 500 million people across China.

Regulators have signaled their intention to curb online loans in recent months, prompting banks and Ant itself to discuss lending caps, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified discussing a private information.

Banks in Zhejiang province have been instructed to cut their exposure to Ant via joint loans on the firm’s Jiebei and Huabei platforms, the people said. Some lenders in Shanghai have set a timetable for a gradual reduction in joint offerings, while at least one in Shandong has completely suspended ties with the firm, the people said.

The moves have taken place in parallel with Ant’s discussions with Chinese authorities on a restructuring plan. Bloomberg reported on Wednesday (Feb 3) that Ant has agreed to become a financial holding company, making it subject to capital requirements similar to those for banks.

Consumer credit has been crucial in driving growth at Ant’s digital finance business, which contributed 63 per cent of the firm’s revenue in the first half of 2020 before the authorities unleashed a barrage of rules to curb the country’s booming financial technology industry. Regulators also want to prevent any one firm from becoming too dominant.

The regulators upended a US$35 billion (S$46.7 billion) initial public offering by Ant Group in November, stunning investors from Shanghai to New York. In a conference call with investors on Tuesday, Alibaba Group Holding, chief executive officer Daniel Zhang said there is “substantial uncertainty” with Ant’s business and it is difficult to assess the impact of the new regulations. Alibaba owns a third of Ant and both were founded by billionaire Jack Ma.

Ant declined to comment. The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

Among the hardest-hitting for Ant was the proposal to impose additional capital requirements on microlenders and demand that fintech platforms put up at least 30 per cent of the funding for loans that are jointly offered with banks. Before the proposal, only about 2 per cent of the more than 1.7 trillion yuan (S$351.4 billion) in loans remained on Ant’s balance sheet, with the bulk of funding coming from its about 100 bank partners.

Surging consumer debt, especially that offered by fintech platforms outside regulatory purview, has unnerved authorities seeking to sustain the nation’s economic rise. Over the past decade, Chinese households have accumulated leverage faster than borrowers in every other major economy, according to the International Monetary Fund. Guo Wuping, head of consumer protection at the banking regulator, has said easy access to online credit has left many low-income and young people mired in debt.

Capping joint lending with the banks may ease Ant’s capital shortfall under the new rules. Ant needs to inject at least 70 billion yuan of new capital just for its credit-lending business to comply with the regulation, according to a November estimate by Francis Chan, a senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in Hong Kong.

Liang Tao, vice chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, said last month recent measures weren’t aimed at any specific company and have been well received by some in the industry. Some of the firms have a “relatively positive attitude” toward the new requirements and have achieved “initial effects” in their “rectification” efforts, he said.

Banks and insurers should continue to cooperate normally with internet platforms in compliance with laws and regulations and some lenders that have pulled back should correct their behavior, Liang said, without elaborating.

Still, local banking regulators in provinces including Zhejiang and Hunan are urging banks that have relied heavily on Ant for client referrals and lending growth to cut back, said the people.

“While the restructuring would bring Ant a step closer to relaunching its IPO, all its units face more restrictions on capital, leverage and product pricing, risking growth,” said Mr Chan, who estimated Ant’s valuation may have fallen to below US$108 billion from a US$280 billion pre-money valuation ahead of its failed IPO.