BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Jack Ma's vision of the future of finance in China is being upended by regulators, along with the ambitions of conglomerates that followed his lead.
Mr Ma's Ant Group is in talks with regulators about injecting capital into its micro-lending units just weeks after its US$35 billion (S$46.9 billion) initial public offering was halted in a sector-wide crackdown. The listing plans of e-commerce billionaire Richard Liu's JD Digits Technology Holding have also been thrown into limbo. Lufax Holding had to renegotiate terms with some shareholders after its recent IPO valued China's largest listed online lender at less than a previous funding round.
The details come from people familiar with the discussions, who asked not to be identified speaking on private matters.
It's all part of the rapidly shifting landscape for China's fintech leaders, which till recently offered the most compelling evidence of technology giants using their might - and a light regulatory touch - to rewire traditional financial services. They are now rushing to shore up capital, mulling business overhauls and bracing for more turbulence as industry watchdogs set their sights on areas spanning lending, banking partnerships and data privacy.
"Financial stability is political in China," said Sean Ding, a Washington DC-based analyst at Plenum, a research firm specialising in Chinese politics and economy. "The whole point of sending such a strong message is for future fintech companies to be more careful, understand that their products can bring about financial risk."
The call for tightened oversight comes from the very top. President Xi Jinping urged financial regulators to "dare to" master their supervisory role, according to commentary penned by an official at the banking regulator, published in the Party mouthpiece People's Daily this month.
And it's the US$1.2 trillion online lending industry that's been first in line for a shake-up, with many companies already trying to meet stringent rules that are yet to be finalised.
Ant, the biggest player in online lending, has been the most visible casualty given the abrupt halt to its record-setting IPO this month. Apart from discussions about replenishing capital, Ant is also slowing the pace at which it packages existing loans into asset-backed securities to sell to investors, a person familiar with the matter said.
The company currently keeps about 2 per cent of loans on its own balance sheet, with the rest funded by third parties or packaged as securities and sold on.
"When Ant does return to the market, investor sentiment is expected to be more restrained," Bernstein Singapore-based analyst Kevin Kwek wrote in a recent report, adding that its valuation could be cut up to 28 per cent.
Ant declined to comment.
The turn toward caution is hindering JD Digits, the finance affiliate of e-commerce giant JD.com Inc., which filed for an IPO with the Shanghai Star Market in September. JD Digits is weighing changes to its listing plans and discussing options with existing shareholders, people familiar said. Its previous target of debuting in the first half of 2021 now looks difficult, according to one of the people.
JD Digits said in a text message that it is working with regulators, declining to comment further.
Newly listed Lufax is an example of the dangers of going public when the scope of increased regulation isn't clear.
The fintech unit of Ping An Insurance Group, China's biggest insurer by market value, warned investors before it listed that it planned to increase the proportion of loan risk it bears with lending partners to 20 per cent from 2 per cent because of regulatory trends, people familiar said.
Lufax was valued at less when it listed than in a previous funding round and allowed existing shareholders to swap their stock into convertible bonds to make up for potential losses, according to people familiar. The lender has seen its stock swing violently since it recent debut as it's become a target for short-sellers.
Lufax declined to comment via email.
Chinese regulators are becoming vocal about reining in the booming digital finance sector, signaling the clampdown has further to run.
Liang Tao, a vice chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said this month that fintech companies don't change the nature of the financial industry and firms should be subject to the same supervision and risk management as banks. In areas where a market monopoly can be spotted, Liang said, the regulator will step up probes to ensure fair competition and order.
A Ping An unit, together with a few banks, was reprimanded by the banking watchdog this month for bundling its own insurance products when making micro loans. Ping An Puhui Financing Guarantee - part of Lufax's loan platform - also charged high service fees, pushing up costs, according to a statement.
Lufax has already started offering credit guarantee options from multiple insurance partners so customers have more choice, a person familiar said. It also significantly lowered fees in September, reducing clients' costs, the person said, declining to be named as the measures were not publicly announced.
"In the short term, investors are likely to grow unsure about the transparency of financial regulation in China," said Ken Peng, head of Asia investment strategy at Citigroup Inc.'s private-banking arm. "Policy makers are cautious about fintech, which is a new industry and takes time for regulation to adapt."