WHEN WE SAID we thought that the initial public offering (IPO) of Jack Ma’s Ant Group might come to be seen as an inflexion point in global capital markets, we thought it would be because raising such a considerable sum –$35 billion — outside of the United States would be a milestone in the development of China’s capital markets. But the abrupt pulling of the IPO of the fintech affiliate of Ma’s Alibaba group just days ahead of its scheduled launch because of ‘unexpected changes in the regulatory environment’ lays down a marker of a different sort, the power of China’s regulators.
Authorities from the People’s Bank of China and three other top financial regulators summoned Ma on Monday to inform him they had belatedly detected shortcomings, reportedly in Ant’s lucrative micro-lending units that will require reapplications for national operating licences and capital increases and restructurings. These will be necessary to comply with new regulations that took effect on November 1 to rein in systemic risks posed by companies that straddle at least two financial business lines. Ant’s businesses range from payments to lending, asset management and insurance.
This was no quiet word to the wise, but a none-too-thinly-veiled reminder to a business — and its owner — that is a threat to China’s state-run lenders, and thus by extension to the administration of state capitalism, that political loyalty and effectiveness as a policy instrument is just as expected of private companies as state-owned enterprises. Whether further actions are taken against other parts of Ant’s business will indicate the severity of the warning.
Ma may now judge as injudicious his recent likening of the big, state-owned banks to pawn shops and criticism of the Basel Accords, which set out capital requirements for banks, as a club for geriatrics.
The latter was part of a provocative futurist speech delivered in front of many of the country’s top financial regulators. They hold to the old-fashioned view that risk management, not innovation and growth is the foundation of a sound financial system. Nor will they have cared for Ma’s argument that China has no systemic financial risk as it has no financial system, and thus no need for systemic risk management. Authorities believe with good reason that there is cause to be wary of financial instability.
Ma is not the first fintech entrepreneur to hold that regulators and legacy lenders are dinosaurs, out of touch with digital innovation and the financial systems of tomorrow. He will not be the last to learn that until tomorrow comes, it is the innovators who have to comply with the regulators, not the other way round.