Shares in internet giant Alibaba soared more than eight percent Wednesday after billionaire founder Jack Ma made his first public appearance since November, ending weeks of speculation about his whereabouts after the company took a kicking from Chinese regulators.
Ma — one of Asia’s richest people with a fortune estimated at around $58 billion — disappeared from the public eye after he was hauled in front of regulators for an October speech critical of China’s financial system.
Shortly afterwards, the record-breaking $37 billion IPO of his financial group Ant was spiked at the last minute by mainland officials in a shock move that some saw as retaliation for Ma’s outspokenness.
China’s finance authorities have since ordered Ant to change its business model and hack back its lending, insurance and wealth management services, while Alibaba is also the subject of an anti-monopoly probe.
The disappearance of Ma from the public eye set tongues wagging on his whereabouts.
But a video clip released by Chinese financial news outlets Wednesday showed him in a recording giving a speech to rural teachers as part of an awards ceremony organised by his charity.
Shares in Alibaba soared 8.5 percent to HK$265.00 in Hong Kong.
In the speech, Ma praised China’s poverty alleviation efforts, a central target of the Communist leadership, and vowed to dedicate more efforts towards helping rural teachers.
“My colleagues and I… are even more determined to devote ourselves to education and public welfare,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech published by news site Tianmu News.
“China has… entered a new stage of development, and is moving towards common prosperity.”
A spokesperson for the Jack Ma Foundation, his charitable arm, confirmed he “participated in the online ceremony of the annual Rural Teacher Initiative event”.
Both Alibaba and Ant said they will cooperate with regulatory requests.
Ma, a charismatic former teacher turned internet entrepreneur, retired as chairman of Alibaba in 2019 but has long attracted attention for his outspokenness and flamboyant antics, performing as a rockstar at company conferences.
The continued squeeze on one of China’s most influential companies is the latest sign that the leadership is ready to deflate the ambitions of big tech firms in a runaway internet sector.
Beijing has a history of disappearing, investigating and imprisoning financial tycoons who do not toe the party line.
Last year, outspoken real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was jailed for 18 years on alleged corruption charges, months after penning an essay critical of the Communist Party.
China’s last-minute abandonment of Ant Group’s record-breaking IPO stems from an intensifying battle for the soul of the nation’s financial system that the fintech giant and its charismatic leader Jack Ma helped to ignite, an AFP report has concluded.
Global markets were stunned Tuesday when Ant’s record-breaking $34 billion IPO was abruptly shelved, frustrating investors eager for a piece of the fast-growing company.
The debacle has prompted head-scratching over how the IPO got so close –- shares were to begin trading Thursday -– only to collapse at the finish line.
Analysts say it was the culmination of an escalating rivalry between Ma, Ant’s co-founder and the billionaire founder of Alibaba, and a state-dominated Chinese banking and regulatory system controlled by the Communist Party that has become uncomfortable with Ant’s growing power.
Ant Group made its name via its main product Alipay, the online payments platform and super-app that is now deeply embedded in China’s economy.
But the company has also expanded into offering loans, credit, investments and insurance to hundreds of millions of consumers and small businesses, spurring fear and jealously in a wider banking system geared more for supporting state policy and large corporations.
As global demand for the dual Hong Kong-Shanghai listing pushed the IPO toward record valuations — potentially handing Ma and Ant Group even more funding, legitimacy and clout — Chinese regulators acted.
In recent weeks, new minimum capital requirements and other restrictions on online lending were imposed to guard against “systemic risk”, plugging some of the regulatory gaps that Ant Group had stepped through, analysts said.
“Given the magnitude of Ant Group’s operations, the regulators might have felt that they did not have an appropriate handle on the flow of money being processed through Ant Group products,” said Philippe Espinasse, a capital markets consultant and former investment banker.
Ma sounds off
The moves angered Ma, 56, who had stood to become Asia’s richest man via the IPO.
He uncharacteristically lashed out in a speech two weeks ago, saying capital requirements were outdated and that China lacked a true “financial ecosystem”.
Ma likened Chinese banks to “pawn shops” for requiring loan collateral and implied that they underserved smaller, younger borrowers.
Chinese public figures rarely call out the government, and the reaction was swift.
A series of commentaries in government media mouthpieces pushed back against Ma, warning of extensive risks from online lenders like Ant Group and vowing tighter supervision.
Things came to a head Monday when Ma and two other Ant executives were summoned to a highly unusual meeting with financial regulators.
Exact details of the talks remain unknown, but the next day the Shanghai exchange pulled the IPO.
Ma’s critiques “didn’t sit well with regulators, many of whom have been grappling with the risks of micro-lending”, said Alex Capri, a research fellow at Hinrich Foundation.
“Ant has grown too large and too influential as a financial institution in China, something that will not be tolerated by the (ruling Communist Party),” Capri said.
Experts say a robust online lending sector is needed to meet the needs of ordinary consumers but that China has reason to fear a borrowing binge.
Bad debt in the country’s chaotic financial system is a perennial risk, and regulators launched a crackdown on a growing nationwide credit addiction three years ago owing to fears of a financial meltdown.
But Ant now boasts around 500 million users of its loan and credit products, which allow consumers to take out cash loans or access revolving credit lines.
This has stoked fears of a younger digital generation with little risk awareness falling into a life-long debt spiral, said Zhang Gang, a strategist with Central China Securities.
“Because of Ant’s scale and influence, they may dominate private lending in the future and … (acquire) private lending companies,” said Zhang, who feels tighter regulations are badly needed.
The IPO is expected to eventually go ahead after Ant complies with the new regulatory requirements, which it has vowed to do, although analysts expect the size and valuation to be lower in light of the curbs on Ant’s businesses.
But the “awful” timing of the IPO’s withdrawal could dent China’s hopes of being viewed as a financial and technology force to rival the United States, said Espinasse.
Beijing is pushing its national tech champions to list on China’s stock exchanges rather than in the US, partly because of an escalating bilateral rivalry.
“This potentially has significant implications, not just for homecoming listings but also for listings of Chinese tech companies more generally,” Espinasse said.
“Ultimately, financial markets are all about trust and transparency and it looks like we don’t have that right now.”
Africa will get more 500,000 test kits as well as 300 ventilators from the Ali Baba Foundation to help in the fight against COVID-19.
The Founder of the Ali Baba Group, Jack Ma, revealed this through his Twitter handle on Monday where he said this is the third batch of donations made to the continent so far.
Also, the Jack Ma Foundation will be donating 4.6m masks, 200,000 clothing sets, 200,000 face shields, 2,000 thermal guns, 100 body temperature scanners and 500,000 pairs of gloves to the continent.
“Our 3rd donation to Africa will immediately be made to @_africanunion and @AfricaCDC,” he tweeted. “This includes 4.6m masks, 500k swabs & test kits, 300 ventilators, 200k clothing sets, 200k face shields, 2k thermal guns, 100 body temp. scanners and 500k pairs of gloves.”
According to the business mogul, the items will be given out to the African Centre for Disease Control which in turn will distribute them to members of the African Union (AU).
Last month, Jack Ma donated the first batch of medical items which included 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks, 1,000 medical protective suits and face shields to each member of the AU.
There are about 20, 000 recorded cases of COVID-19 in Africa with more than 1,000 death, presently.
See Tweet Below:
Our 3rd donation to Africa will immediately be made to @_africanunion and @AfricaCDC. This includes 4.6m masks, 500k swabs & test kits, 300 ventilators, 200k clothing sets, 200k face shields, 2k thermal guns, 100 body temp. scanners and 500k pairs of gloves. #OneWorldOneFight
The Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) has given a breakdown of how the test gears and protective kits donated by a Chinese billionaire, Jack Ma, were distributed across states in Nigeria.
The items include 100,000 face masks; 9,999 overall gowns; 20,000 reagents for testing; and 913 face shields.
The agency on Thursday gave the breakdown on its official Twitter handle and appreciated Jack Ma’s foundation for the donation.
“The supplies received have been distributed to states accordingly, with priority given to states with the highest number of cases at the time of distribution”.
The NCDC revealing the distribution list in a graphic illustration showed that Lagos State got 27,678 face masks; 2,596 overall gowns and 165 face shields while the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, got 14,115 face masks; 1,906 overall gowns and 161 face shields.
Oyo State got 1,912 face masks; 291 overall gowns and 26 face shields while Ogun State got 4,375 face masks; 671 overall gowns, and 58 face shields.