For years, Alibaba founder Jack Ma had a safe place on China’s top business rankings. Members of the China Entrepreneur Association even recall an evening out on the West Lake in Hangzhou a few years ago when he boasted about his close relationship with the chairman, since Xi. Can Binh is also the Provincial Party Secretary.
But this week, which was supposed to end with the $ 37 billion listing of Alibaba’s financial firm Ant Group, instead, Xi himself, according to people close to the events, was getting started. biggest IPO ever.
The immediate catalyst for this action was at least part of a speech Ma gave in October that criticized Chinese banks and regulators. But in that context, regulators and banks threatened by the proliferation of nimble new competitors have been lobbying tough to curb the sector, especially Ant. and its talented founder.
“He has become too arrogant,” said the head of the Asian economics division of a large international bank with close ties to regulators. “They need to bind the monster Ant is becoming.”;
In retrospect, it is clear that Mr. Ma, 56 years old, has been caught up in a long brewing mess and at least partly made by himself.
The ripple effects of a canceled IPO are numerous – and mostly worrying. Chen Zhiwu, professor at the University of Hong Kong, said: “The message is that no major private entrepreneurs will be tolerated in the mainland.
Threats to Ant have been building up in Beijing for months, but Mr. Ma and his closest partner Joe Tsai, who has built the company with him since its inception in 1999, have not assign enough weight to it, as it is now. “Jack and Joe signed on the list as soon as they were satisfied that they had the blessings of the regulators,” said one of Ant’s top executives.
From the beginning, Mr. Ma, a former English teacher, is actually the only face of Alibaba. However, the founder of the e-commerce conglomerate now the most valuable company in China has never publicly demonstrated the same technological insight as Robin Li, founder of Baidu, or knowledge. on product development by Pony Ma, CEO of Tencent. Meanwhile, Alibaba’s culture demands fierce loyalty from its employees, while at the same time making its competitors worse. Very few employees, for example, dare to use Tencent’s WeChat pay-for-pay app.
Mr. Chen said: “Over the years, Jack Ma has been successful in branding and is the best asset for Alibaba Group.
However, it was the combination between Mr Ma and Mr Tsai that made the empire flourish. Mr. Ma is a visionary but is always with him, to ensure vision is fulfilled, Mr. Tsai, who grew up in Taiwan and studied law at Yale before joining Ma. Mr. Tsai must also take control of his boastful boss.
For example, when Goldman Sachs bought a stake in Alibaba in 1999, it was Tsai who was more fluent in the language of financiers.
Despite big-name advocates, Ant has always been a threat to the financial industry’s entrusted interests in China – including credit card company Unionpay and state-owned banks.
Although it started out as a payments company and dominated mobile payments in China, in recent years the company has branched out into other lucrative areas previously under bank guarantees. state-owned. The largest part of its revenue today comes from the lending business that is focused on smaller customers.
In making its final private market fundraising in 2018, it described itself as a “disruptor,” in circulating documents for potential investors that FT saw. . However, analysts like Jason Bedford, then at UBS in Hong Kong, described it as a parasite in the Chinese financial system, exploiting its freedom from heavily imposed regulations. for banks receiving deposits.
China’s plans to create digital currencies and an electronic payment system announced last spring were largely in response to concerns that Ant’s Alipay application and, to a lesser extent, WeChat. of Tencent, whose share of digital payments is too large for banks to set up, the regulators said.
Recently, regulators have also kept an eye on microfinance, although in its most recent annual report, Alibaba describes Ant as a partner that helps banks lend money to SMEs, capital is the engine of job creation.
Banks and regulators have never seen Ant that way. Although it doesn’t take deposits from the public, the source of the money it gets from banks comes from deposits. According to new guidelines released this week, online lenders will need to create at least 30% of their own loans instead of outsourcing it.
“The banks are right to complain, they are too tightly regulated and Ant is free to do whatever they want,” said Chen. “This is the end of regulations on light induction.”
Mr. Ma angered regulators by attacking them and banks in Shanghai last month. Some people who are knowledgeable about this issue said that he was too overpowered when he mobilized strong regulators at that time. “It is not a good idea to try to squeeze regulators,” said a former chief executive at the Securities Regulatory Commission of China. “He should have gotten smarter.”
At the Alibaba board meeting last year, when Ma officially resigned as executive chairman, he appeared in a rock star uniform – wearing a black shirt, sunglasses and purple beads in his hair. – and sang You Raise Me Up in front of an audience of employees, family, and friends. The cheers turned to tears as new CEO Daniel Zhang appeared on stage with his knees bent to send off his predecessor.
But one problem is that Mr. Ma has yet to fully retire. Yes, he has surrendered to the powers of Alibaba and Ant Financial. However, he and Mr. Tsai continued to call shootings on important issues.
Mr. Ma always told his associates that he wanted to retire early. Now there’s a chance he will actually be forced to do so.