Ant faces fresh setback with latest curbs on joint lending with banks

Move, which targets lucrative growth area, is part of Chinese govt's crackdown on tech giants

BEIJING • Mr Jack Ma's Ant Group and China's other fintech giants have been dealt another blow by new rules that target a lucrative growth area - joint lending with banks.

Banks must cap overall co-lending with Internet platforms or other partners at no more than 50 per cent of outstanding loans, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) said last Saturday.

Co-lending with one platform should not exceed 25 per cent of the bank's Tier 1 net capital.

The restrictions add to draft rules for online lenders issued late last year which heralded an abrupt loss of appetite for free-wheeling fintech innovations among regulators.

The derailment of Ant's US$35 billion (S$46.3 billion) share sale and mounting scrutiny of its operations have since upended one of China's biggest business success stories.

The authorities have also cracked down on technology juggernauts in everything from e-commerce to credit scoring and payments.

"The new rules are mainly targeted against the big techs who are more reliant on the co-lending business model," Citigroup analysts led by Ms Judy Zhang wrote in a note. They "can prevent banks from over-relying on online lenders for credit assessment and overconcentrating on selective fintech partners".

From Jan 1 next year, an Internet platform will be required to provide at least 30 per cent of the funding itself in any single joint loan with a bank, the CBIRC said.

The regulation is expected to further cripple growth at Ant, whose Jiebei and Huabei units had facilitated 1.7 trillion yuan (S$348 billion) in consumer loans to 500 million people as at June 30 last year, with only about 2 per cent being kept on the parent's balance sheet.

Concerns that Ant will need to raise capital to plug the shortfall and seek national licences have prompted analysts at Morningstar and other firms to slash estimates on Ant's valuation by half from US$280 billion before its scrapped listing.

Further requirements in Saturday's announcement: A local bank cannot extend online loans outside its home base, and CBIRC and its local branches may propose tougher requirements on the amount and share in co-lending arrangements.

The latest rules will also apply to foreign banks, trust firms, consumer finance companies and auto finance businesses.

The rules will hurt lenders that rely on Ant for their digital loans, said Mr Francis Chan, a Hong Kong-based Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. The restriction on regional banks' ability to extend credit outside their home bases will mean some will lose access to consumers in coastal areas, he added.

Ant and at least a dozen banks have been paring back their years-long cooperation on consumer-lending platforms in recent months, people familiar with the matter said this month. That has taken place in parallel with Ant's discussions with the Chinese authorities on a restructuring plan.

Bloomberg reported earlier that Ant has agreed to become a financial holding company, making it subject to capital requirements similar to those for banks.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2021, with the headline 'Ant faces fresh setback with latest curbs on joint lending with banks'. Subscribe