It will “not be too long” before Ant Group is able to resume its suspended initial public offering, according to a member of the Chinese financial technology group’s board of directors.
The operator of the Alipay mobile payment service and Alibaba Group Holding sister company was poised to raise USD 35 billion in the world’s largest-ever IPO last November before Chinese regulators intervened shortly before share trading was set to start in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Fred Hu, who served as greater China chairman for Goldman Sachs before forming investment group Primavera Capital Group in 2011, told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview that he remains confident in Ant’s prospects despite moves by Chinese regulators to force the company to overhaul its business practices and absorb higher costs and risks.
Some analysts have estimated the overhaul could cut Ant’s market value by two-thirds. Hu, however, remains bullish.
“Ant is the fintech leader in China and globally the biggest, the most profitable, and the most innovative,” he said. “Sadly, the IPO didn’t happen. But the fundamentals of the company still remain intact. So the technology is still there, the innovations are still there, the need for tech-driven financial services is still there.”
Primavera’s 0.21% stake in Ant would have been worth HKD 4.99 billion (USD 642.36 million) if the IPO had gone forward at the planned issue price of HKD 80 a share.
“The governance, transparency, financial accounting reporting are all in place… almost like a public company now,” Hu said, adding that there is “no rush” or timetable for resuming Ant’s IPO.
“The company has enough capital to support the business,” he said. “But I also believe the company is very ready for IPO.”
Hu, who also serves on the boards of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and UBS, was this month appointed as an adviser on Chinese markets by Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, just three months after stepping down as a director of the exchange.
Hu said that Jack Ma, the Alibaba Group Holding founder who holds a controlling interest in Ant, is “more than OK” despite his near-complete disappearance from public view since the IPO’s suspension, which followed his criticism of Chinese financial regulators in a conference speech.
“So right now he keeps a low profile, but I think it is good for him,” Hu said, who invested in Alibaba before its 2014 IPO. “[Ma] is using his time and talent to do something really positive for society. He cares about rural education. He cares about the environment.”
Many of Primavera’s 60 or so portfolio companies come from China’s technology sector as part of Hu’s emphasis on seeking out opportunities from the country’s transition toward becoming a high-income nation.
But since the blockage of Ant’s IPO, Chinese authorities have taken aim at many of the country’s other internet companies as part of an effort to rein in their market power, hitting several other Primavera investees.
Alibaba itself was fined RMB 18 billion (USD 2.78 billion) in April for anti-competitive behavior. Earlier this month, regulators stopped Didi Global from signing up new customers and ordered its removal from app stores after finding it had mishandled user data on the heels of its USD 4.4 billion IPO in New York.
Online tutoring service Zuoyebang was fined RMB 2.5 million for misleading pricing and advertising. Amid the flurry of reprimands, Hello, a bike-share operator, put its New York IPO on hold.
“The tightening regulations, the heavy fines, and also the harsh rhetoric from Beijing, clearly have created uncertainty in the short term and can be quite spooky for financial markets,” said Hu, speaking before the Didi IPO.
“[But] some companies… are getting so big and so powerful that I do think it is a legitimate case for the government to look into the tech sector, whether there is abuse of market power, anti-competitive behavior, misuse of consumer data, [or] violations of privacy,” he said. “All those are legitimate concerns.”
Despite the setbacks with Primavera’s investees, which also include video app Kuaishou, Ant rival Lufax Holding, artificial intelligence developer SenseTime, and electric carmakers Xpeng and Nio, Hu said, “In the long term, I am very optimistic about the outlook of the Chinese tech sector and the potential of innovation.
“In the long term, it [the crackdown] would make the industry more competitive, a more level playing field, and more efficient. The smaller companies, new startups will have more equal opportunities to succeed and the consumers will benefit.”
Aside from technology, Primavera’s other main investment themes include: health care, climate action and China’s urbanization, and the growth of its middle class, which the company tracks via retail and consumer sector picks.
Primavera invested USD 410 million in KFC operator Yum China in 2016, just ahead of its spinoff as a separate New York Stock Exchange listing by parent Yum Brands, and Hu remains on its board. More recently, his company agreed to pay British consumer products company Reckitt Benckiser Group USD 2.2 billion to buy the Chinese infant formula business of its Mead Johnson Nutrition subsidiary.
While Hu is skeptical whether China’s move to relax its two-child policy will actually lead to a rise in births, he sees opportunity from the country’s growing middle class.
“Mead Johnson is a very strong brand,” he said, noting that in pre-pandemic times, Chinese would travel to Hong Kong to buy cans of its formula to take back to the mainland.
“As Chinese consumers become richer, parents are willing to spend on high-quality products for their kids,” Hu said. “They are searching for quality, safety for infant brain growth and development.”
Primavera plans to focus on growing Mead’s distribution beyond the core cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. “If we are smart and working hard, maybe in three or five years, we can really revitalize the brand and make it a leader in the China market,” he said.
Hu is also optimistic about the outlook for Hong Kong remaining a global financial center, despite speculation a crackdown driven by the national security law imposed by Beijing could drive investors elsewhere.
“We are neck-and-neck with New York for the best companies to raise capital, he added. “The city’s global financial center status is basically intact, actually it has become even more important.”