A viral pun in China foreshadows the biggest shadow over Ant’s monster IPO

“Old people’s club.”
“Old people’s club.”
Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip
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Update, Nov. 3: Ant’s mega-IPO was suspended in both Hong Kong and Shanghai today, a day after the unexpected summons Monday to Ant executives by China’s top financial regulators described in the story below. Ant said that Chinese regulators informed it (pdf) that its listing might no longer meet listing or disclosure requirements “due to material matters relating to the regulatory interview” of its executives and a changing fintech regulatory environment. The company said that as a result its Hong Kong listing also stood suspended and that it would provide an update soon on its plans for returning funds from investors who subscribed.

On the eve of Ant Group’s dual public listing, which is expected to raise more than $30 billion and wrest back for China the crown for the world’s biggest IPO, Beijing’s regulators sent the fintech giant a clear message: We’re in charge.

Four Chinese financial regulators, including the central bank, securities, banking, and foreign-exchange watchdogs, summoned Jack Ma, Ant’s controlling shareholder (and founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, from which Ant was spun out), executive chairman Eric Jing, and chief executive Simon Hu for a regulatory meeting yesterday (Nov. 2), according to a notice from the China Securities Regulatory Commission.

Meanwhile, on the same day, two of the regulators at the meeting, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission and the People’s Bank of China, published proposed rules (link in Chinese) for China’s online micro-lending space, a key segment of Ant’s business.  In addition to the country’s largest mobile payment app Alipay, Ant also runs micro-lending platform Huabei, which extends small loans funded by domestic banks and asset-backed securities markets to consumers. The draft rules, which are open for public comment until early next month, propose curbing the amount of money individuals and entities can borrow.

Ant said in a statement that yesterday’s meeting was in order to exchange views regarding the health and stability of the financial sector. “Ant Group is committed to implementing the meeting opinions in-depth and continuing our course based on the principles of: stable innovation; embrace of regulation; service to the real economy; and win-win cooperation,” it added.

Ant declined to comment on the regulators’ draft rules for microlending.

Beijing’s moves sparked heated discussion online, with many viewing the summons as highlighting the biggest shadow over the company—more regulatory scrutiny—as it heads into the highly anticipated dual listing, which has attracted around $3 trillion in bids from retail investors. The discussion quickly led to the coining of a new chengyu (成语), or classical-style proverb consisting of four characters.

The “proverb” plays on the company’s original name Ant Financial Services Group (蚂蚁金服 or Mǎ yǐ jīn fú) and turns it into a four-character homophone (马已今服) with a rather different meaning: Jack Ma has now been tamed. While the characters 金服 (jīn fú) mean financial services, the similar sounding characters (今服) mean “now” and “conceded.”

There have already been signs that Chinese officials have taken stock of Ant’s clout—after all, it’s pretty much the country’s Amazon of finance—and are concerned about asserting their dominance. Last month Ant’s IPO approval was delayed after regulators began looking at how the giant was restricting retail investing into mutual funds investing in the IPO through Alipay. Meanwhile the central bank is moving quickly on its own digital yuan and accompanying wallet.

“Overnight, a new chengyu…was created,” commented one user on social media platform Weibo. “This shows us that we definitely have to keep a very, very low profile while making money.”

Ma’s own recent remarks implying the current state of financial regulation might be out of touch with technological advances may not have helped either. At a conference late last month, he said global financial regulations had been set by an “old people’s club.”

“We can’t use yesterday’s methods to regulate the future,” said Ma, speaking in Shanghai.

Now it seems, the “old people” are coming for him.