MoneyGram's sale to Jack Ma's Ant Financial becomes latest deal torpedoed by Trump administration

Ant Financial clinched an US$18 (S$23.90) per share all-cash deal to acquire MoneyGram in April.
Ant Financial clinched an US$18 (S$23.90) per share all-cash deal to acquire MoneyGram in April.PHOTO: REUTERS

BENGALURU (REUTERS) - A US government panel rejected Ant Financial's acquisition of US money transfer company MoneyGram International over national security concerns, the companies said on Tuesday (Jan 2), the most high-profile Chinese deal to be torpedoed under the administration of US President Donald Trump.

The US$1.2 billion deal's collapse represents a blow for Jack Ma, the executive chairman of Chinese internet conglomerate Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, who owns Ant Financial together with Alibaba executives. He was looking to expand Ant Financial's footprint amid fierce domestic competition from Chinese rival Tencent Holdings' WeChat payment platform.

Mr Ma, a Chinese citizen who appears frequently with leaders from the highest echelons of the Communist Party, had promised Trump in a meeting a year ago that he would create 1 million US jobs.

MoneyGram shares were down 8.5 per cent at US$12.06 in after-market trading.

The companies decided to terminate their deal after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) rejected their proposals to mitigate concerns over the safety of data that can be used to identify US citizens, according to sources familiar with the confidential discussions.

"Despite our best efforts to work cooperatively with the US government, it has now become clear that CFIUS will not approve this merger," MoneyGram chief executive Alex Holmes said in a statement.

A standard CFIUS review lasts up to 75 days, and the companies had gone through the process three times in order to address concerns. Additional security measures and protocols that the companies suggested failed to reassure CFIUS, the sources said.

The US Treasury said it is prohibited by statute from disclosing information filed with CFIUS and declined to comment on the MoneyGram deal.

The US government has toughened its stance on the sale of companies to Chinese entities, at a time when Mr Trump is trying to put pressure on China to help tackle North Korea's nuclear ambitions and be more accommodative on trade and foreign exchange issues.

The MoneyGram deal is the latest in a string of Chinese acquisitions of US companies that have failed to clear CFIUS. They include China-backed buyout fund Canyon Bridge Capital Partners' US$1.3 billion acquisition of US chip maker Lattice Semiconductor Corp, China Oceanwide Holdings Group's US$2.7 billion acquisition of US life insurer Genworth Financial and Chinese buyout firm Orient Hontai Capital's US$1.4 billion acquisition of US mobile marketing firm AppLovin.

The MoneyGram's deal demise is also the latest example of how CFIUS' focus on cyber security and the integrity of personal data is prompting it to block deals in sectors not traditionally associated with national security, such as financial services.

Other US financial services deals by Chinese firms are waiting for approval from CFIUS, including HNA Group Co's acquisition of hedge fund-of-funds firm SkyBridge Capital from Anthony Scaramucci, the Trump administration's former communications director.

Skybridge and HNA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Dallas-based MoneyGram has approximately 350,000 remittance locations in more than 200 countries. Ant Financial was looking to take over MoneyGram not so much for its US presence but to expand in growing markets outside of China.

Ant Financial and MoneyGram said they will now explore and develop initiatives to work together in remittance and digital payments in China, India, the Philippines and other Asian markets, as well as in the United States. This cooperation will take the form of commercial agreements, one of the sources said.

Any arrangements reached by Ant Financial and MoneyGram that do not involve a transaction would not be subject to review by CFIUS.

Some US lawmakers, including Republican Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, had written to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who also serves as chairman of CFIUS, to express concern that Ant Financial's acquisition of MoneyGram could pose national security threats, arguing that the information of US citizens, including military personnel, could be compromised.

Ant Financial had argued that MoneyGram's data infrastructure would remain in the United States, with personal information encrypted or held in secure facilities on US soil. It had also pointed to existing US regulations that call for such protections.

CFIUS had approved a previous deal by Ant Financial, its acquisition in 2016 of Kansas City-based EyeVerify, which designs a mobile eye verification technology.

"What is more likely to happen at this point is that MoneyGram will sell to another company, and one company that has shown interest in the past is Euronet," said Gil Luria, an equity analyst at DA Davidson & Co.

Ant Financial clinched an US$18 per share all-cash deal to acquire MoneyGram in April, seeing off competition from US-based Euronet Worldwide Inc, which had made an unsolicited offer for MoneyGram and openly lobbied US lawmakers, saying Ant's proposal created a national security risk.

"Euronet continues to believe there is compelling commercial logic to a combination between Euronet and MoneyGram. However, significant developments have been disclosed by MoneyGram since Euronet's offer, and Euronet has not conducted any evaluation of the business in that time. While we continue to view a transaction with MoneyGram as logical, there is no guarantee any offer will be made or any transaction will ultimately occur," Euronet said in a statement.

Ant Financial said it paid MoneyGram a US$30 million termination fee for the deal's collapse.