20210106 jack ma
Ma has maintained a low profile since Ant's IPO was halted in 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Chinese regulators approved a plan by billionaire Jack Ma's Ant Group Co. to raise 10.5 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) for its consumer unit, signaling progress in the government-ordered overhaul of the financial technology firm.

The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission division in Chongqing green-lit the company's plan to lift its capital to 18.5 billion yuan, according to a notice on December 30. Ant, which contributed 5.25 billion yuan as part of the plan, will control half of its shares after the deal, while a unit owned by the city of Hangzhou will hold 10 per cent, becoming the second-biggest shareholder.

The deal resolves a key hurdle for Ant as it seeks to meet requirements from regulators following a crackdown on its business after its record initial public offering was torpedoed in 2020. Chinese regulators have reined in shadow banking over the past years to reduce economic risk and Ant is still waiting to obtain a financial holding license that will regulate it more like a bank.

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The greenlight is another sign that Beijing is softening its stance on its giant internet sector, traditionally a big driver of growth, as the world's No. 2 economy sputters. Last week, authorities approved the most significant batch of new blockbuster game releases in months, allowing Tencent Holdings Ltd. to refill a pipeline emptied by the crackdown.

Shares of Ma's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. rose as much as 7.7 per cent after the Ant news and the Hang Seng Tech Index extended its rally to 3.3 per cent. Tencent jumped nearly 4 per cent while Baidu Inc. surged 6 per cent.

"We view it as a signal on Ant's regulatory rectification wrap-up," Leon Qi, an analyst with Daiwa Capital Markets Hong Kong Ltd., wrote in a report. The consumer unit will be able to handle 1.1 trillion yuan of loans once the fundraising is complete, he said.

Other new investors include Sunny Optical Technology Group Co. and Jiangsu Yuyue Medical Equipment & Supply Co. The consumer finance unit combines Ant's most lucrative online lending operations, Huabei and Jiebei.

The current plan is a scaled-down version of an earlier effort to boost capital to 30 billion yuan. Cinda Asset Management, one of China's bad-debt managers, last year withdrew a plan to invest 6 billion yuan for a 20 per cent stake in the consumer finance giant, without disclosing a reason.

Ma has maintained a low profile since Ant's IPO was halted. In a filing in July, Alibaba reiterated that Ma "intends to reduce and thereafter limit his direct and indirect economic interest in Ant Group over time" to a percentage that doesn't exceed 8.8 per cent.