20210106 jack ma
Ant issued a statement denying the divestment of Ma's stake was ever considered. Image Credit: AFP

Hong Kong: Ant Group is exploring ways for founder Jack Ma to sell his stake and give up control of the Chinese finance-technology company as a means to ease pressure from the country's regulators, Reuters reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Officials from the People's Bank of China and the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission held talks with Ma and Ant separately between January and March, where the possibility of the Ma's exit was discussed, Reuters reported.

The company hoped that Ma's stake would be sold to existing shareholders in Ant or its e-commerce partner Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Reuters said. Ant issued a statement to the news agency denying the divestment of Ma's stake was ever considered.

The Chinese' government has been squeezing Ma's internet empire as part of an effort to imprint its authority indelibly on the country's technology industry. In landmark announcements this month, it slapped a record $2.8 billion fine on Alibaba for abusing its market dominance, then ordered an overhaul of Ant.

Ant will effectively be supervised more like a bank, a move with far-reaching implications for its growth and ability to press ahead with a landmark initial public offering that the government abruptly delayed late last year.

The overhaul outlined by regulators and the company will see Ant transform itself into a financial holding company, with authorities directing the firm to open its payments app to competitors, increase oversight of how that business fuels it crucial consumer lending operations, and ramp up data protections. It will also need to cut the outstanding value of its money-market fund Yu'ebao.

Bloomberg Intelligence senior analyst Francis Chan said in a report earlier this week he expects Ant's valuation to drop below 700 billion yuan ($107 billion) from 2.1 trillion yuan in an earlier attempt to public.

"Ant Group's prospects could wane further after China halts improper linking of Alipay payments with Ant's other products," he said. "New curbs on Yu'ebao also hurts its wealth business."